Creation: Chapter 2

Creation and Evolution

It is estimated that the earth came into being as part of our solar system some 4500 million years ago. It took another 1000 million years for conditions to have cooled sufficiently for life to emerge. A living organism, in contrast with inert matter, can respond creatively to its environment and has the capacity to procreate. The creature is endowed with some instinct of identity that strives for survival, an attitude that becomes especially dominant when powers of sense perception develop.

The basis of life still eludes scientific explanation even if its essential chemical determinant, deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), is now well known and its genetic propensities become increasingly accurately mapped out. Life is response and growth; once life ceases, the organism becomes inert and soon tends to disintegrate. In Christian thought the Holy Spirit of God is described as the Lord, the giver of life. He animates all living forms, but they cannot acknowledge their source of existence until the human being evolves as nature's masterpiece of matter and spirit. If God has emptied himself to make space for the material universe, how can he be present in a realm he has purposely left under his creature's control? How can the transcendent Deity be also immanent in even the meanest of his creatures without taking control and predetermining their mode of development? Too transcendent a God can become as remote as an absentee landlord, whereas too immanent a God can be bound up with his creatures to the extent of their becoming mere ciphers under his control. Alternatively, they may become merely manifestations of their creator, a state moving towards pantheism, in which nature is identified with God. Such a deity becomes as otiose a category as a remotely transcendent one. Like all mystical logic, the answer lies in the realm of both/and or neither/nor rather than the rational either/or. Luria's concept of a trace of the Deity being present in his creation, helpful for me personally, leads to the concept of pantheism, in which the divine essence pervades his creation. But the concept if taken to an extreme position can, like pantheism, pre-empt the creature's independence. As far as I have been allowed to see, the divine essence is a gift to the creature, which may either be accepted or rejected. One gift that is fundamental and unsolicited is that of life itself, but its use depends on the creature. The more primitive forms are carried along by their environment, but, as reason dawns, so does the capacity to choose come into its own and the will shows itself. I accept St Augustine's assessment of the human condition as one of inner restlessness until man rests in God. This inner knowledge is a direct communion with the Deity, and it is substantiated through the realm of mental communication as well as the labile matter of the universe.

Between 3000 and 500 million years ago various invertebrates made their appearance: blue-green algae followed by marine sponges and later by molluscs. By this time other types of algae were abundant, including those involved in building reefs. About 500 million years ago fishes appeared, and the first land creatures descended from them, the amphibians, saw the light of day some 400 million years ago. At about the same time the first insects appeared. The reptiles emerged 50 million years later. Meanwhile the first land plants, followed by the early seed plants, had established themselves, soon to be succeeded by the gymnosperms (plants with seeds unprotected by a surrounding vessel); about 270 million years ago coniferous trees evolved from them. At about this time mammal-like reptiles appeared which about 220 million years ago evolved into the fabulous dinosaurs. These prevailed until about 66 million years ago when they suddenly became extinct. The first mammals were probably contemporaneous with the dinosaurs, but they were able to survive. The first birds appeared about 135 million years ago. As the dinosaurs disappeared, so the more recognisable modern mammals thrived and spread over the world's surface. At that time the primate order first evolved.

Meanwhile the angiosperms, the flowering plants, appeared. These prevail in all but the coldest climates. The earth's crust was also undergoing dramatic changes. The supercontinent called Pangaea had begun to break up into the continents familiar to us; South America separated from the African mainland, and later the Alpine and Himalayan mountain systems formed. The climate cooled, and there were major ice ages between one and two million years ago (as well as more recently) alternating with warmer interglacial periods.

This information is readily available in specialist textbooks. Some, like the existence of Pangaea, is a hypothesis accepted by most geologists. The study of fossil remains by palaentologists has cast light on the origin and development of our small world, while the archaeologist's study of prehistoric antiquities has shed light on the more recent of our ancestors' way of life. What we see is a focus of matter evolving through vast aeons of time, being the source of innumerable biological experiments while its own substance groans under the whiplash of cosmic change. There is no predetermined pattern; chance apparently governs all, and yet as Gerard Manley Hopkins put it so beautifully in God's Grandeur:

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward,
springs -
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah!
bright wings.

These thoughts fit in especially well with the human vandalisation of the environment, but there are also deeper undertones of the "whole creation groaning in all its parts as if in the pangs of childbirth" (Romans 8:22). The human adds his quota of pain to the world, but suffering is an intrinsic part of all growth to proficiency, even of so apparently inert a substance as the matter that composes the world. This is composed ultimately of elementary particles, the gluon, quark and electron. All living things partake of the world's vulnerability, and none can claim a special concession or dispensation from the unpredictability of cosmic phenomena that rock our little home from time to time.

The order of primates probably first appeared 70 million years ago; it is divided into two main suborders, the prosimians, small creatures that include the mouse lemur, and the larger monkeys and apes. The ape family includes the orang-utan, gorilla, chimpanzee and the human. The apes emerged about 45 million years ago, and the human species and the contemporary great apes had common, fairly immediate ancestors. Some 10 to 16 million years ago there lived ape-like creatures who were the common ancestral stock of the whole family. The Asian apes, the orang-utans, diverged during this period. The bulk, however, lived in Africa where the human was to emerge. The gorilla diverged 8 to 10 million years ago, followed by man's nearest relative, the chimpanzee, between 5 and 8 million years ago. The prehuman line continued until 2.5 to 2 million years ago, when the genus Homo broke away from the common ancestor, who apparently became more robust but lacked the brain power of the human, and subsequently disappeared from the face of the earth.

The momentous change that accompanied the appearance of Homo was the adoption of the erect posture, so that the forelimbs could develop into hands which could fashion tools in a systematic and culturally transmissible way. Thus Homo habilis (tool-making man) emerged. There was a progressive increase in size and complexity of the brain, and there is now evidence that this early human of two million years ago had a spoken language (this has been deduced by the complexity of the brain structure as made evident in extant skulls with well-defined areas anatomically associated with speech similar to those found in contemporary humans). Homo habilis migrated to Asia from 1.8 to 1.5 million years ago, and this was closely followed by the transition to Homo erectus. Somewhere between 1.3 and 0.5 million years ago the control of fire was achieved, and from 750,000 to 250,000 years ago our own species, Homo sapiens, emerged. Between 100,000 and 25,000 years ago modern human culture was born.

The triumphal emergence and durability of the human species has been closely related to its intellectual ability. It is the only group that can adapt to a wide variety of terrestrial and climatic conditions. Indeed, we can bend nature to suit ourselves, although in the end our versatility may bring forth a bitter harvest of destruction. Nevertheless, the biblical narrative and modern evolutionary theory agree in putting man at the top of the pyramid of animal development, at least as regards intelligence and therefore power over the remainder of creation in our small planet. Interestingly, the Bible traces the results of human disobedience to God in a progressive alienation from the animal creation. At first Adam and Eve feed on all the plants that bear seed everywhere on earth and every tree bearing fruit that yields seed, while the green plants are given to the lesser animals (Genesis 1:29-30). There is peace and harmony between man and animals. After the Fall there is first the terrible murder of Abel by Cain, fratricidal strife typical of human history, and then; after the Flood that destroys all creation other than Noah and his household, a new covenant proclaimed by God: the fear and dread of mankind shall fall upon all wild animals on earth, on all birds of heaven, on everything that moves upon the ground and all the fish in the sea; all are given into man's hands, and every creature that lives and moves is to be his food. The human moves from a harmless vegetarian mode of diet to unrestricted meat eating, except that flesh with blood (life) in it is forbidden (Genesis 9:2-4). The time of strife between man and animals has come, and will continue until the Spirit of God fully infuses the human spirit, when compassion and love triumph over gluttony and covetousness. The first eleven chapters of Genesis are unwisely seen in a limited historical perspective. They speak of eternal spiritual truth depicted allegorically and in parable, as indeed do all authentic spiritual teaching and all spiritually interpreted historical events. The end of the eleventh chapter merges slowly into the story of the patriarch Abraham, the first palpably historical character in the Bible.

The mode of evolution was described by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace as "natural selection", depicted popularly as the survival of the fittest of a species, especially in times of privation when the common herd are liable to go to the wall. Darwin, from his detailed studies during his voyage on the Beagle, came to the conclusion that species themselves are not immutable but are capable of transformation, a far cry from the "creationism" implicit in the scriptural account of God making animals appear spontaneously in the course of a short period of time. Darwin's visit to the Galapagos Islands, a remote Pacific archipelago some hundreds of miles west of Ecuador, was especially seminal to his grasp of species development: each island seemed to have its own finch, sometimes even more than one according to the local environment, and yet all these birds clearly came from a common stock. In fact, Darwin's and Wallace's final theory had been preceded by the work of Erasmus Darwin, Charles' grandfather, the eminent geologist Charles Lyall, whose study of fossils showed him that the earth was a planet of great antiquity, and Jean Baptiste de Lamarck, who had brought out a prior theory of evolution that accepted the inheritance of acquired characteristics, a view at complete variance with subsequent research except in the case of some bacteria.

It was the science of genetics; pioneered by Gregor Mendel, that put evolutionary theory in a rational framework. Each organism has a pair of factors called genes, one from each parent, that control the appearance of a given characteristic. Usually one gene product dominates over the other, which then may be hidden, but sometimes both products are manifest. The genes are contained in the DNA of each individual cell nucleus in bodies called chromosomes, but it is the sex cells, the ova and spermatozoa, that are especially important in heredity, for by their fusion a new individual is born. These sex cells have half the number of chromosomes of the other body cells; when they fuse, a zygote, the unicellular form of a new individual, is formed. It rapidly divides and grows to form the organs and parts that characterize the mature organism. There is a random assortment of maternal and paternal chromosomes in each ovum and spermatozoon: we all bear points of clear resemblance to our parents, but there are also points of departure. Some genes remain unexpressed in a parent which subsequently manifest themselves in the offspring. Furthermore, a gene may undergo a random change, or mutation, during the processes of cell division prior to the final formation of the ovum or spermatozoon. This mutation may affect the individual himself, and will be inherited by any subsequent offspring. If the effect is baneful, the embryo may die or be born severely diseased, but if it is less severe, the individual will survive and transmit the gene with its effects to his progeny. The harmful genes fall under the inspection and management of the medical profession. Some mutated genes may be less dangerous and more beneficial, even helping the individual to cope in an indifferent environment. The progeny will then have the advantage over their peers, soon supplanting them to become the dominant group.

The classical Darwinian view, amplified by the neo-Darwinism that has followed genetic knowledge, sees evolutionary innovations as essentially the result of the accumulation of many slight modifications, the consequence of numerous mutations. But much controversy prevails. Some workers hold that many of the most important evolutionary events have arisen in single steps due to major mutations: a theory of "macromutations" as opposed to the usual one of "micromutations". This would tend to recognize the possibility of genetic forms arising spontaneously. It is, of course, possible that the two mechanisms could both occur in the course of evolution. Yet another approach envisages evolution as rather more than merely a sequel to chemical changes in the DNA molecule affecting one or more genes. It attributes the primary development of an organism to a non-material morphogenetic field arising from the mentallpsychic/spiritual realm. Such a field would then determine the organism's form, which its genes then proceed to execute by virtue of their fundamental property of implementing the formation of proteins through the second nucleic acid of the cell, termed ribonucleic acid (RNA). Proteins are the basic building blocks of living organisms.

Such a mechanism meets with scant respect from most scientists, who not surprisingly prefer a thoroughgoing material explanation for all biological processes, since these are then immediately tractable to reason and control. Anything suggesting "vitalism" (the doctrine that life originates in a vital principle distinct from chemical and other physical forces) is taboo in traditional scientific thought, a prejudice not entirely to be dismissed, as the concept can let in a host of superstitions when placed in the wrong hands. Nevertheless, our lives do bear the impress of factors that reach beyond common reason, and these are constantly impinging upon them. Indeed, life itself is a mystery that cannot satisfactorily be reduced to purely material categories.

A current hypothesis that is arousing some interest is that of "causative formation", which postulates a series of "morphic fields" around each organism. These fields not only determine the form of the organism and its various parts but also have the property of inheriting present data to pass on to the organism's progeny. It is certainly difficult to envisage a field that bears memory sufficient to instruct future members of the same species, but it is the "morphic resonance" among those members (whether plant or animal) that is the means by which information, whether behavioural or evolutionary, is transmitted in a psychic milieu. The fields not only direct development but are also capable of evolution according to the environmental exigencies that may later confront the organism, so that there is a constant interplay between morphic field and organism. At present the hypothesis awaits experimental substantiation and rests on circumstantial evidence, but its very existence emphasizes the inadequacy of materialistic dogma in solving the mystery of life and evolution at least to the more spiritually aware person.

When the marvel of the creation of the universe is considered, we do well to remember, as astronomers tell us, that our small planet revolves around the sun, which is only one of ten thousand million stars in our galaxy, which, in turn, is only one of the millions of galaxies that make up the universe. Whether there is life elsewhere in the universe we do not know, but there seems to be no obvious reason why it should not be so. It is by no means unlikely that the microcosm, our solar system, is representative of the macrocosm, and what we are enabled to know of it, of which our earth is a small part, may be not unreasonably extended to regions beyond our present grasp yet part of the one creation. Though our minds may not be able to deal with the vast scale of the universe expressed numerically, we have an imagination that can travel beyond finite quantities to embrace an infinity, which is greater than any sum of numbers that we could imagine. Thought, being instantaneous, travels faster than the speed of light. It can also comprehend the totality of the universe in a sweep that puts all finite measurement in its place as simply one mode of coming to terms with the inconceivable.

On the other hand, life on earth is intimately related to the material structure of the planet and other planets also. For instance, there is some evidence that the earth was struck by a large meteorite 66 million years ago, and it is possible that the sudden extinction of the dinosaurs was related to this event. It might have happened that the dense layer of dust from the meteorite blocked the sun's rays over part of the earth's surface, so interfering with photosynthesis, the process by which the energy of sunlight is used by the chlorophyll of green plants to build up carbohydrates from carbon dioxide and water. And so the dinosaurs may have starved to death. Two primitive marine reptiles, the ichthyosaurs and the plesiosaurus, died out shortly before this destruction of the dinosaurs, and most of the marsupials also perished; the survivors are found in Australia and South America only. By contrast, the other mammals thrived and spread over the earth's surface.

The major ice ages with alternating warmer inter-glacial periods have also had their effects on living creatures. At the height of the ice age the sea level is considerably lowered, undergoing a "regression", but with the melting of the ice the sea levels rise, undergoing a "transgression". Not only do the regression and transgression affect the surrounding land but also, by influencing the local temperature, alter the ecosystem, the environment in which the organisms normally flourish most prolifically. This involves the local flora and fauna. It could be said that mass extinctions throw a spanner in the orderly working of the evolutionary process. Certainly the course of evolution depends primarily on external factors; the successful mutant organism is the one that can survive most prolifically in the altered environment. The world is in a state of development no less than the creatures it supports, and we must not be surprised if we suffer illness and death because of the earth's instability. But perhaps we are destined to come to our planet's rescue by living a life of awareness and constant service.

Chapter 3
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