3. The evolutionary model is the best one we have for explaining the physical process of creation, and cannot explain the origin of the universe.
In this post I’ll examine some of the scientific alternatives to the modern cosmological model I presented in Part 1. I’ll leave the Young-Earth Creationist model until Part 4.
As I talked about in Part 2, the best thing we can say about a scientific model is that it’s our best guess. Some people may disagree with the model, but in the ongoing scientific dialogue and process, if the majority of people agree that a particular model is the best, then it’s usually the most practical one to work with, and may be characterized as “the best current model” or similarly. Of course it is the people around the edges that make the breakthroughs and changes in models, but ironically, until there’s a majority consensus on the value of their work, it must be treated with skepticism.
The model I described in Part 1 for the formation of the universe is generally known as the “Inflationary Big Bang” model. The “inflationary” part is a technicality relating to the details of the universe’s early expansion. The “Big Bang” is the relevant part. The model begins with the infinitesimal bit of universe-stuff, which then explodes into the cosmos as we know it.
This theory was first developed in the early twentieth century when astronomers noticed that the most distant galaxies from us were all getting farther and farther away. This implied that they had at one time been much closer together. Investigations of the kinds of conditions which would occur if everything in the universe originated from this original tiny state resulted in predictions about the universe that could be disproven, such as the prediction of the 3 Kelvin background temperature we can observe today.
When the Big Bang theory was proposed, in the twenties and thirties, the battle between creationist and scientist was in full flame. Ironically, the new theory came under fierce attack from both sides. To the creationists, it was simply another evolutionary heresy aimed at getting rid of God, as if to look too closely at the process by which the universe assumed its current state — complete with fossils, sedimentary layers, and frozen light waves from galaxies billions of light-years away — would be to somehow obliterate the creator and sustainer of it all, as if God could not stand to be looked in the face, rather than the other way round! To naturalists who indeed wished to get rid of God, it smacked much too strongly of creation ex nihilo. To imply that the universe had a beginning and might well have an end was much to religious-sounding for them.
The main scientific rival to the Big Bang theory was called the “Steady State” theory. In this theory, the universe is infinite in space and time. This was, of course, a favourite for naturalists, since having neither a beginning nor an end, the universe was self-explainable. However, the weight of the evidence was against it. The observed expansion of the galaxies, the cosmic microwave background, black holes and proton decay all strongly suggested a universe with not only a finite beginning in time, but an inevitable end as well.
But does the Big Bang do away with God? Of course not. The theory can only describe what came after the universe was created. It cannot explain how or why that happened. Current inflationary models purport to solve this problem by making our universe a bubble in a pre-existing foam of universes — begging the question, of course, of where the original universe-foam came from (it’s turtles all the way down, of course). Science by its nature can only explain the observable universe — it cannot have anything to say about things before or outside of that observable universe.
So the Big Bang theory is the current best guess as to the history of the universe as a whole. Ironically, it was accepted only over the objections of those who found it too religious. Up to this point in the series, I’ve been writing from the standpoint that it’s perfectly reasonable to believe that natural evolutionary processes are how God creates worlds. This, of course, is what Young-Earth Creationists would dispute. They believe that because naturalistic scientists ascribe the evolutionary processes we see in nature to “random chance”, it is impossible to imagine that God might use the self-same natural processes, which She, after all, created and pronounced good, to carry out the grand plan of creation, and indeed the redemption of the universe.
In the case of biological evolution, my view has support from some unlikely sources — naturalistic scientists and church fathers.
In thinking about biological evolution, a scientist named Fred Hoyle (who, ironically, had been one of the proponents of the Steady State theory), came to an interesting conclusion. Random chance, he calculated, would hardly suffice to come up with life on Earth in the accepted time frame of the planet’s existence — four or five billion years. He saw no way to explain the beginning of the self-evident process of evolution on earth. Therefore, he proposed the theory of Panspermia, that life had evolved elsewhere in the universe and had been blown through the cosmos on the supernova explosions we talked about in Part 1.
There is, of course, a hole in this theory wide enough to drive a black hole through. Life had to evolve somewhere for the first time. Is even 14 billion years, the estimated age of the entire universe, long enough? Not for “random chance”.
For St. Augustine, it was obvious both that Genesis 1 was not to be understood as a literal account, and that the various kinds of plants and animals on earth came in families that could be grouped together in families with common ancestors. God did not create all the various kinds of creatures, he argued, but created certain initial forms which contained the potential to develop into the vast array of forms we see today. And I would add to what I believe to be the thrust of orthodoxy in affirming that God’s activity in the world was not limited to an initial Deist-like creation, but that He upholds and sustains the ongoing universe by His faithfulness.
And if we believe that God is true and faithful, and furthermore that Her invisible qualities are shown in the visible world through nature, then we must believe the evidence of our eyes concerning the longevity of the earth and the process of biological evolution. Some relevant evidence:
Ice Cores. Go to Greenland and Antarctica, and start drilling out the ice there. You’ll notice that, like tree trunks, the ice comes in layers, for the new snow laid down every year. You can count the layers in a microscope. The oldest core we’ve yet drilled has almost a million layers. ‘Nuff said.
Sedimentary Layers. If you study the tiniest bit about geology, you’ll find that we have a very good understanding about the various layers of geological history locked up in sedimentary rocks all over the world. The amount of sheer data, or evidence, here is astounding. And no, it’s not evidence of a world-wide flood. There are many places where you can split layers apart and find, say, animal tracks, or other signs of long periods of time between layers.
The Fossil Record. It is true that there are gaps in the fossil record as we excavate down into the layers, but this is only natural. We’ve only been paying attention to fossils for a couple hundred years, and we have only a limited sample. And the fossils we do recover all the time do not stick with a few forms. We find new transitional species all the time. Consider the recent flurry of transitional forms from China shedding immense light on the evolution of birds. In addition to the famous Archaeopteryx, there are now dozens and dozens of known species in every stage from dinosaur to bird.
Just an aside here: the old YEC canard “The fossils date the rocks, and the rocks date the fossils” is obviously the work of someone who never finished high-school algebra, and thus never had to solve a system of two equations in two variables.
DNA. We discussed this in detail in Part 1. The DNA of all species shows abundant evidence of evolution over large periods of time. The new scientific discipline of cladistics is refining and reformulating the system of biological classification according to DNA evidence, as opposed to outward physical characteristics.
Anyone who takes an honest look at the evidence must conclude that the current cosmological and evolutionary models are pretty good descriptions of what went on in the universe in the past few billion years. The question of “why”, of course, remains outside the capability of science, but the question of “how” has been pretty adequately answered. As one exasperated scientist said, “If the good Lord made the world to look like it’s four billion years old, who are we to disbelieve Him?”
In part 4, we take a look at those who do so disbelieve.