Evolution vs. a Talking Snake: Yes They Really Are That Different

Evolution vs. a Talking Snake: Yes They Really Are That Different March 31, 2011

Michael Patton has posted a cartoon, and once again I find it troubling. The cartoon asks whether believing in a talking snake (as per Genesis 3) is really that different from believing that what started as a single-celled amoeba became a talking human being.


When I first saw the post on the Parchment and Pen blog, I refrained from commenting. But since Friendly Atheist has chimed in, it seems appropriate to blog about this, so that it is clear that this isn’t a “Christian vs. Atheists” issue but a “people who understand evolution and the evidence for it vs. people who don’t” issue.

  • First, the idea that snakes could evolve into beings that could speak is different in very obvious and basic ways from the idea that snakes as we now know them can talk. And so there’s a major different right from the start.
  • Second, there are points in the comments section which seem to suggest that Michael may not have grasped that what evolution envisages is gradual change, and not an amoeba suddenly turning into something else. He even says “If you believe a single-celled organism eventually grew a voice box, your ability to accept what is fascinating, bizarre, and non-intuitive is certainly there.” I’ll encourage him to chime in, since we sometimes word our comments in a way that gives a wrong impression of our meaning. But it sounds like evolutionary biology has not been understood. But even more relevant, perhaps is my last point:
  • Third, the idea that a single cell from a human male can combine with a single cell from a female and, in a matter of years rather than millions of years, become a talking person – ridiculous, right? Akin to believing that a snake can talk, right?

I don’t believe that a snake has ever talked, and I think that religious believers who have not been trained to switch off their common sense when reading the Bible would recognize that a talking snake is an important clue about genre.

And the evidence for simpler forms of life evolving into complex ones is strong and persuasive.

And so the real issue is whether Christians ought to use a story with a talking snake to try to argue against the conclusions of scientific inquiry based on extensive genetic, paleontological and physiological. I believe the answer is no. I also believe that many of the great theologians of bygone eras would have agreed with me on this point.

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  • I've refrained from commenting over there, but I think you've pretty much summarized my thoughts on the matter. Honestly, after I saw that silly cartoon, I considered dropping the Parchment and Pen blog from the list of blogs that I read regularly. I've never been able to understand Christians who have such a problem with scientific research and with evolution. If one reads the Church Fathers, such as Basil the Great or Origen of Alexandria, who wrote on the opening chapters of Genesis, it is quite clear that a literalist interpretation of such passages is not only unnecessary and incomplete but even dangerous and flat-out wrong.

  • The belief that man is "fallen" has to do with man's "fallen nature". That is understood differently by the different traditions in Christianity. Anyone, no matter their "conviction" about evolution can agree that man is limited in space and time. Our existence and knowledge is limited by the geographical (space) and historical (historical). But, we are also limited politically, if we do not have liberty. The "creation account" has a "law" suggestion about doing right or doing wrong and serving the consequences. This protects society from passions that would impinge upon another's "right". Such "teaching" does remind all of us that we are not beyond "evil", or doing what is wrong, with the impending consequences. The second is human development in the natural sciences, but there is also knowledge nowadays about human development in the social sciences. Free societies allow for the full expression of human development.Both are "right" and are useful for all people.

  • Dr. McGrath, what is the clue about genre? Would you elaborate?

  • Autonomy is what Kant understood to be the internalization of the Categorical Imperative. Psychologist and sociologist have understood how humans individuate within society. Business ethics knows that ethical practices build client/customer trust and benefit profits. Religious traditions believe that treating another with equal respect will bring benefit to society. BUT, the survival of man is what drives his basest passions, these cannot be resisted if there is fear, and a lack of trust in society, which is built through the laws that prevent abuses of power, and societal openness to protect everyone's right to equal protections, so everyone is equal and can give their gifts.

  • Same old story, literal vs non-literal. For me in this case (talking snake), allegory vs documentary news broadcast, unless it happens to be Fox news, then it is fantasy (Fox news, not the bible). To the heart of the matter, per James, "that a single cell from a human male can combine with a single cell from a female and, in a matter of years rather than millions of years, become a talking person"…if I didn't know any better, I'd say that is a miracle. Same goes for the snake making it to an adult. Negative entropy, anyone? If I hadn't seen it with my own eyes…

  • Josh

    Michael Patton has always struck me as a reasonable and thoughtful guy, even though I disagree with him about a lot. But for whatever reason, he seems determined to not explore the evolution/creation issue in any kind of depth. It just baffles me.

  • SkepticHeretic, I was referring to the fact that we normally assume that a story featuring talking animals is a myth, fable, parable or some other kind of story than a historical one, even if we are told the story without a specific indication of genre. Since the author of Genesis 3 does not specify the genre of what is found there explicitly, might it not be argued that we are expected to use the clues about genre provided embedded in the story itself?

  • Thanks once again for the link and the invite to talk. Were I to do this over again, I would not have posted this!It is funny, when I created it, the fear from others was that creationists would get mad because I was saying that snakes talking was so bizarre. My point was not to make any truth claims either way. I was not attempting to imply the validity of either snakes talking or evolution happening. My point was that the world is full of bizarre things. Even if evolution was God's means in creating the world (which I have no problem with), it is bizarre. And to laugh at one without laughing at the other is comical, in my opinion. However, with the history of the debate, I can understand how people would automatically see it as an attempt to belittle evolution. Oh well, mark this up to one of those posts you wish you did not post. I just need to get out of the comic buisness. Blast you iPad!

  • Dr. McGrath,I thought maybe you had particular genre in mind – fable for example.Definitely it could be argued several ways – that the author would assume the audience would always recognize it as a specific type.From a purely analytical/logical viewpoint, if we ever say it _is_ one or the other, we commit a fallacy.It is highly, highly probable that snakes never talked (likelihood near 100%).But to say that "snakes never talked" _because_ they don't talk now is to commit a logical fallacy similar to presentism – projecting what we know now into the past. (Again, I'm arguing FOR talking snakes – only intellectual honesty)Also, I think one's view of "the bible" – is it special books(literally touched by God), or only books composed by humans – determines if a fallacy is being committed.For example:If you view the books as solely written by man, then the deduction that snakes have never talked remains reasonable and intellectually honest (I think) because there's no special claim attached to the text itself.But another person could start with the premise that books are special (divinely touched in some form) and that "snakes may have talked in the past" and this is again perfectly reasonable and intellectually honest as well because they start with a different premise.In both cases the premises:A. the books of the bible are not "special" ORB. the books of the bible are "special" are not really provable/disprovable from reason/logic (probability and improbability still applies however).

  • Thanks for taking the time to respond, Michael! I suppose the appropriate thing for me to point out is that, however much I may have criticized your cartoon, I still haven't managed to make one of my own! 🙂

  • I was referring to the fact that we normally assume that a story featuring talking animals is a myth, fable, parable or some other kind of story than a historical oneI wonder what genre a story that included a talking sky, the devil as a character, a man who walked on water, raised people from the dead, and was then raised from the dead would mark.

  • Evan,See: EuhemerismEuhemerism treats mythological accounts as a reflection of actual historical events shaped by retelling…That is, a form of myth that has its origin in real historic people and places.

  • And given the fact that we have so very many instances of legendary and miraculous stories developing around historical figures, genres that obviously need to be considered in such cases are those of "mythologized history" and "legends which developed around a historical figure."

  • Thanks Skep — I'm familiar with Euhemerism. Euhemerus thought all ancient myths were historical events with layering on them. Does this mean the talking snake was a real historical event that had mythical layering? Does it mean that Hercules, Jason and Aeneas were real too?

  • I would also like to thank Michael for responding. I think I might have come off as unnecessarily hostile on his site (and, ironically, as some sort of quasi-hero on Friendly Atheist). I didn't mean to take CMP to task for his stance on evolution (with which I obviously disagree). I just found the punchline to be so poorly worded that the premise didn't stand up under scrutiny. However, I do concede that if we're simply looking at both "at first sight," without any prior knowledge, then the joke makes a bit more sense. But without that disclaimer things fall apart. The joke would require that we live in an information vacuum. While I think it's a valid statement to say that the natural world is bizarre at first blush, I don't think a literature/biology comparison was an effective means of showing that. Michael, I apologize if I came off harsh. That would be a dialogue fail on my part. Thank you again for engaging over here. I can respect your opinion even if I don't share it myself.

  • Evan,Herc, Jason & Aeneas were "probably" actual historical figures – possibly even multiple figures who ended up wrapped in the character of a Hercules or a Jason etc.Does it mean they did the things that the myths purport? Of course not.

  • It's such a slanderous mis-representation to say that fundamentalists believe in talking snakes -that's just absurd. They're saying an evil, disembodied spirit dressed up as a snake and talked to a woman and that the author of Genesis forgot to mention that.

  • Pet stores don't sell live snakes that speak human language. So…is the story of Adam and Eve nonsense or is there meaning beyond their disobedience? Do a search: The First Scandal. Then click twice.

  • Skep, great. I'll grant Jesus exactly the same historicity as Hercules and we'll call it even.

  • Thanks Sean. I don't really have a stance on evolution. While I am not convinced of it I don't know enough to speak to the issues.

  • Robert, that's the second time you have posted the exact same thing. I will grant that it has a certain relevance here, but next time please either interact with the post or refrain from commenting. I delete advertising as spam.

  • Evan,Ok – If you're satisfied in your own intellect that you're justified in doing so, I wouldn't encourage you to do anything else. 🙂

  • The way I would interpret this is that one can assign a level of "ridiculousness" to one phenomenon: talking snakes.And then another may assign an equal level of ridiculousness to another phenomenon: plants evolving into people.Thus, when an atheist tells me, "a talking snake is ridiculous," I would reply, "in the same way you think a talking snake is ridiculous, I think that plants evolving into people is ridiculous."That's how I interpreted the drawing.

  • Are you making fun of Michael, suggesting that he holds the mistaken viewpoint that scientists think plants evolved into animals? I don't think he said that, and however much I found his view of evolution problematic and unpersuasive, I don't think one should attribute to him other unscientific or mistaken views that he hasn't expressed. if he has said something of this sort, please let us know where.

  • James, I apologize if my comment came across that way, as it was not my intent to make fun of or misrepresent. I could be more specific in saying that whatever lifeforms were there before invertebrates in evolutionary history (algae, sponges, etc.); those evolved into humans over millions of years according to the neo-darwinian synthesis as I understand it.

  • Plants evolving into people. First I have heard of that!James, I posted an update at the blog. This is the way I should have posted it to begin with. Warning: new comic!

  • Thanks for letting us know! Here's the link to the post Michael mentioned for everyone's convenience.My prediction is that the new post and cartoon will upset a completely different set of people in unforeseen ways… 🙂

  • Evolution is taught in university classrooms. We can't just ignore it or make fun of it just because it poses difficulties to Christianity. The cartoon just adds more fuel to the controversy. Meanwhile, our children growing up in fundamentalism enter college with noble desires to help people through medicine or science, and end up in a faith crisis because of such cartoons.

  • Someone

    Do we really have any solid proof that evolution happens. Sorry, no. If you say single cell of human to a human, yes, but of any species to something very different another, no. Though, I do think that the evolution is indeed more believable than a talking snake, I don’t think those who read and believe the book have their common sense ‘switched off’. I also don’t think that common sense trait is embedded, is a characteristic or a distinguishing feature of only non-believers.
    Also, in your article, you probably used word ‘believe’ with ‘I’ thrice – just pointing out – :D)

    • You don’t think that human chromosome 2, for instance, shows that humans are related to other primates?