One of the most vital theological concerns of our time is whether the Christian belief in God’s creation of the world and all life in it can be reconciled with the scientific arguments in favour of biological evolution. Ever since the first publications on evolution by means of natural selection appeared in the nineteenth century many scientists, theologians and others have maintained that creation and evolution are incompatible. In contrast to this perceived conflict, many thinkers have been convinced that belief in God’s creative activity and acceptance of biological evolution are indeed compatible. This compatibility avoids the extremes of religious fundamentalism with its rejection of scientific evidence on the one hand and atheistic materialism with its rejection of Divine influence, design or purpose on the other. In this essay we will strive to briefly present both the theological and scientific sides of the issue. Finally we will propose a synthesis of Divine creation and biological evolution based on the Genesis text. Let us consider the Scriptural testimony first.
Creation according to Genesis
The first book of the Hebrew scriptures, Bereshith (‘In the beginning’), has since the beginning of the Christian era also served as the first book of the Christian Bible, Genesis (Greek for ‘birth’). Already in its first chapter Genesis declares that all created reality arose through a series of Divine acts. At the end of each of the days of creation God saw that it was good. All of creation – whether spiritual or material, celestial or terrestrial, human, animal or plant - bears the Divine imprint. We thus find a positive and appreciative attitude in Genesis toward the created world, including matter. This view stands in stark contrast to the rejection or devaluation of matter found in the Vedanta, Platonism and Gnostic dualism. In the traditional Christian faith there is no need for an escape from the material sphere, as in some of these systems. Both the spiritual and material spheres of the world are good, since they are created by God, the fount of all goodness.
The account of creation in the first chapter of Genesis is known as the Hexaemeron (Greek for ‘six days’), on which a number of Greek and Latin Church fathers wrote commentaries. Some of them interpreted the six days of creation quite literally, like St Basil the Great who was much influenced by Aristotle’s natural philosophy. Yet the same Cappadocian father insisted that the scriptural account of creation is not about science, and that there is no need to discuss the essence (ousias) of creation in its scientific sense.1 Others followed a more allegorical approach, such as St Gregory of Nyssa who saw the Hexaemeron as a philosophy of the soul, with the perfected creature as the final goal of evolution.2 Or in the words of the Greek Orthodox writer Alexander Kalomiros, the Hexaemeron is like an immense mystical vision that Moses experienced when he encountered Christ on Mount Sinai.3 It is therefore wrong to treat Genesis as an astronomical or zoological manual. Alas, this is precisely what generations of Christians have done, often leading to a loss of religious faith among those who take the natural sciences seriously.
There exists a wide consensus among Biblical scholars that the book of Genesis contains two accounts of creation.4 The first account (1:1-2:3) contains the Hexaemeron and is primarily cosmocentric, dealing with the creation of the world. It forms part of the so-called Priestly writing that uses Elohim as the name of God, and was probably written soon after the return of the Judeans from Babylonian exile, around the year 500 BC. The second account (2:4-3:24) is anthropocentric, dealing with the creation of humankind. It forms part of the so-called Yahwist writing in which Yahweh is used as the name of God, and was written in the southern Israelite kingdom around 900 BC.
The first creation account could be understood as an anti-myth to the Babylonian myth with its cosmogony based on a battle between the gods. In this priestly account of creation, order evolves from chaos by Divine command.5 The opening verse of Genesis sets the tone for what is to follow: ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth’. We are next told that the spirit of God hovered over the surface of the water, while the earth was unformed and covered in darkness. It is pertinent to note that the Hebrew word for ‘spirit’, ruach, also means ‘wind’ or ‘breath.’ Then followed six days of Divine creative activity, each concluded with the statement that evening came and morning came. This order reflects the Judaic and Christian view that the day begins at sunset, a custom still observed in the Orthodox Church where the liturgical cycle begins with Vespers.
While the successive creation of the Earth, the celestial bodies, the plants, the marine animals and the terrestrial animals are effected with a Divine command, ‘God said’, the creation of humankind is introduced with a Divine deliberation, ‘Let us make human beings in our image’ (Gen 1:26). From the outset Christian theology has understood the plural ‘us’ as referring to the Divine Trinity, but its Judaic meaning could be a referral to the minor divine beings thought to surround God (see Job 1:6). The command to the first human couple to fill the earth and subdue it (Gen 1:28) does not authorise wanton exploitation of the earth, but could be interpreted as enjoining them to be free from nature’s tyranny and from idolising objects.6 After creating the heavens and the Earth and everything in it, God rested on the seventh day, foreshadowing the Judaic Sabbath.
A number of basic features in this creation account as it relates to the evolution of life have been discerned by the Russian Orthodox theologian Andrei Kuraev.7 Firstly, life appears gradually: all the species of plants and animals are not created at once, but rather follow a sequence of appearing. In the second place, the world is capable of responding to God’s call, and thus brings forth life. Thirdly, the creation of the world is a process within time, involving interaction of God and the world. All these features are compatible with biological evolution, but obviously not with the materialistic and atheistic interpretation thereof. It is important to note that evolution by itself would lead nowhere without the Divine Word (or Logos) to guide it, as Kuraev remarked. On the other hand, the question of how evolution takes place is not answered in the Bible - rightly so, since the sacred scriptures are primarily concerned with man’s relation with God, in other words with salvation, and not with cosmology or biology.
The second creation account focuses on the creation of Adam and Eve as the ancestral human couple. The Hebrew text dealing with the creation of Adam is illuminating: a human being (adam) is formed from the dust of the earth (adamah) - thus linking the earthling with the earth. Also, the term ‘living creature’ (Gen 2:7) does not imply a duality of soul and body as in Hellenic philosophy, but a unity animated by God’s creative act.8 The man was then put in the Garden of Eden to cultivate it, and for sustenance was allowed to eat of any tree in the garden except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. After the man had given names to all the animals, God formed a woman out of his flesh as companion to the man.
In his commentary on the early Patristic understanding of Genesis 1-3, the American Orthodox scholar Peter Bouteneff discussed the Hebrew and Greek terminology pertaining to humankind.9 The Hebrew adam could mean human beings generally, any particular person, or a specific person. It first occurs in Genesis 1:26-27, where it refers to humankind rather than a specific person. From Genesis 2:7 onwards the Hebrew text focuses on man (is) and woman (issa), in other words sexually differentiated humanity. For its part the Septuagint, the early Greek translation of the Old Testament, uses ho anthropos in Genesis 1:26 and 2:7. From Genesis 2:16, where the Divine command on eating is given, ‘Adam’ is used in the Septuagint. This distinction is a logical one, with anthropos referring to humankind in general and Adam to a particular person.
The third chapter of Genesis relates the human couple’s disobedience to the will of God and their expulsion from the garden. After instigation by a serpent they had eaten of the fruit of the forbidden tree, became aware of their nakedness, and tried to hide from God. The belief that the serpent was actually an adversary of God, the Devil, and that the woman was to blame for the fall, only arose much later in Judaic thought (see Wisdom of Solomon 2:24 and Ecclesiasticus 25:24).10 The effects of the human rebellion are then described in an interweaving of a series of folk explanations: why humans feel hostile towards snakes, why childbirth is painful, why women are socially subordinate, and why men must work (Gen 3:14-19). It is interesting that up to this point the Hebrew text had been referring to man and woman. Now the man named his wife Eve, meaning ‘Life’ – ‘because she was the mother of all living beings’ (Gen 3:20).11 Only then is Adam introduced by name, when God clothed the man and his wife with garments of skin. They were forthwith expelled from the garden and settled to the east of Eden.
It is interesting that the Hexaemeron and the paradise narrative were virtually ignored in the rest of the Hebrew scriptures, in which Adam’s function appears to have been purely genealogical. Bouteneff suggested that the Yahwist paradise story was based on the Babylonian myth of Atrahasis, which also formed the basis of the flood story. Later the Priestly author rewrote the Yahwist narrative while borrowing from the Enuma Elisha.12 The texts of Second Temple Judaism (i.e. from the second century BC) show an increasing awareness of Genesis 1-3, notably the books of Ecclesiasticus, Wisdom of Solomon, Jubilees, Second Esdras and Second Baruch. Notable in this regard is the role ascribed to the Divine Wisdom (always referred to in the feminine sense) in the creation of the world. Thus Ecclesiasticus 24:3-6 identifies Wisdom with the divine wind or spirit of Genesis 1:2, being the word spoken by the Most High and covering the earth like a mist.13
The most important Jewish commentaries on the Genesis creation accounts, as far as the Christian Tradition is concerned, were produced by the great Alexandrian philosopher Philo (ca 25 BC-50 AD). His work represents an intricate synthesis of Biblical theology (as found in the Septuagint) and Hellenic philosophy, cast mostly as an allegorical commentary on Genesis.14 Philo is therefore regarded as the founder of the allegorical method of scriptural exegesis, of which Alexandria would become the main centre. The Jewish thinker preferred allegory to a literal reading of the Hebrew scriptures primarily to prevent anthropomorphising of God, in other words ascribing human qualities to God.15 He wrote several commentaries on Genesis 1-3, notably On the creation of the world.
According to Philo, God creates the cosmos out of non-being (ek me onton), and therefore the material world is not eternal but created and dependent on God. Philo accepts the fundamental Platonist teaching that the sensible world is an unequal reflection of the intelligible world.16 The first mention of the creation of humankind (Gen 1:27) is understood as referring to an idealised human being as genus, with male and female as its species. This human genus is immortal by nature and without sexual differentiation. In its turn the creation account in Genesis 2 refers to the sense-perceptible, psycho-somatic human being, which is by nature mortal, and either male or female. With this interpretation, which would be influential among early Christian thinkers, Philo demonstrated his intellectual debt to Platonist anthropology.17
Cosmological aspects of Genesis
Various aspects of the Genesis creation accounts that are relevant for our present purpose were pointed out by Kuraev. Firstly, those familiar with ancient and classical mythology will soon realise that there is no theogony (origin of the gods) in the Biblical account, as opposed to the Sumerian, Indian and Greek myths. The pagan myths were attacked by St Theophilus of Antioch for omitting reference to a Divine creator and Divine providence.18 It is no accident that the Hebrew text of Genesis commences with the word bereshith, of which the first letter serves as a kind of bracket that is opened to the text and closed to what goes before or beyond it, as Kuraev observed.19 We may note in this regard the riposte of St Augustine to the question as to what God was doing before He created the world. Such a question is meaningless, the Latin Church father argued, since time came into being together with creation.20 Therefore the terms ‘before’ and ‘after’ apply to the created order and not to God.
We have already commented that the Genesis account is both anthropocentric (humankind is created through Divine love) and geocentric (the Earth is at the centre of the narrative).21 However, these aspects have for thousands of years been misinterpreted, with disastrous results. Anthropocentricity has been employed to justify an ethic in which the rest of the natural world could be wantonly exploited by humans, with numerous extinctions of life forms, large-scale destruction of habitats and biodiversity, and adverse climate change among its effects. In its turn, geocentricity has been used by power-hungry ecclesiastics to persecute those who engaged in scientific activities, Galileo being the most conspicuous example. In this way an anthropocentric and geocentric narrative of creation became distorted into evil ethics and incorrect worldviews.
Furthermore, Kuraev reasoned, the Genesis account entails a series of separations: light from darkness, the waters above and below the heavens, the sea from dry ground, and finally Eden from the rest of the Earth. This stands in contrast to Indian religious thought, which sees the diversity of the world as an evil. Thus in Brahmanism salvation is a sacrifice, being a return to the primal unity. On the other hand, in Middle Eastern thought (whether Biblical, Egyptian, Phoenician or Sumerian) the concept of sacrifice entails protection of the cosmic diversity against the forces of chaos that strive to destroy it.22 In this view, the enormous diversity of life on Earth has to be seen as part of the Divine intention and not contrary to it.
Kuraev identified another leading theme in the Biblical account as that of abundance.23 There is too much water, too many stars, too much empty space - all disproportionate to the size of a human. Also, the water and the earth, impregnated with the Creator’s word, produce abundant life: the Hebrew text mentioning the reptiles and other creatures created on the fifth day is sheretz ga shertzu, meaning multi-bearing or multi-swarming.24 We may compare this observation with Christ’s teaching according to the Gospel of St John (10:10), ‘I came that they may have life (Greek zoe), and have it abundantly’. Or as St Dionysius the Areopagite wrote, all animals and plants receive their life and warmth from the Divine life. The benefits of the Power of God reach out to humans, animals, plants and all nature, including the elements of fire, water, air and earth. For instance, this Power stirs the powers that give nourishment and growth to plants (Divine Names 6:3, 8:5). Abundant life is therefore a significant theme in the Christian tradition.
It further transpires from the Genesis account that creation comes into being gradually, the transition from one day to another being mediated by God’s call: ‘Let there be!’ In response to the Divine call the earth gives forth life: ‘Let the land produce vegetation and living creatures; and it was so’. In other words, a dialogue is taking place between God and the world - an interaction of appeal and response. This could also be seen as a synergy between the Word of God and the earth. Kuraev quotes St Basil in this regard: ‘The earth germinates, but it does not sprout that which it has but transforms that which it does not have, as much as God gives the strength to act’. 25 As a result, matter is created with the potentiality of self-organisation, growth and transformation, without the necessity of interference from outside.
Early Christian reception of Genesis
The first Christian interpreter of the Old Testament was St Paul the Apostle, but like the rest of the New Testament authors he was not much interested in the process of creation. For the early Christian writers generally, the Hexaemeron tells us more about the Creator than the details of creation.26 In his letter to the Romans (4:17) Paul made an oblique reference to God ‘calling into existence things that do not exist’ (kalountos ta me onta hos onta). This implies that God is radically other than His creation. To the Roman believers the Apostle also wrote that the whole of creation suffers from the human rebellion against God, and eagerly await liberation from mortality with us (Romans 8:18-25). In his first letter to the Corinthians (8:6), Paul declared that Christ is the Lord through whom all things came and through whom we live. Through his letters to some of the earliest Christian communities St Paul transformed the scriptural message that the early Church had received from Judaism.27 In this way, Genesis came to be seen as relating the beginning of universal humankind and not only of Israel. Likewise, Jesus Christ is seen as the universal saviour of all creation, and not only the Messiah of Israel.
The Pauline identification of Jesus Christ with the act of creation was echoed (or perhaps preceded) by St John the Evangelist. Thus at the very beginning of his Gospel we are told that ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’.28 In the Judaic Wisdom tradition we likewise find a conviction that God had made all things by His word (Wisdom of Solomon 9:1; Ecclesiasticus 24:3). This creative Word is equated with the Divine Wisdom (Greek Sophia), which is Jesus Christ. John continues that this Word had brought life and light into the world (1:3-4), but the world chose darkness. With the latter term the Evangelist indicated the forces throughout history that were (and by extension still are) hostile to God.29 Ceaseless spiritual struggle between those beings (angelic and human) loyal to God and those in the service of evil is after all axiomatic for the Christian understanding of reality.
By the middle of the second century the first indications of a distinct Christian philosophy appeared in the works of St Justin the Martyr. Even after his conversion to the Christian faith he remained convinced of the continuity between Platonism and Christianity, particularly in their theology and cosmology. For instance, both Genesis and the Timaeus taught that the cosmos is created and dependent on the Divine will. Justin nonetheless admitted important differences between the two traditions, as in the nature of the soul (immortal by nature versus immortal by Grace).30 As far as cosmology is concerned, Justin argued that God created all things out of formless matter (ex amorphou hyles).31 When Genesis 1:26 states ‘Let us make ’ it is read as referring to the Father and the Son. For Justin, Christ is the Wisdom of God, the Reason (Logos) that indwells all things. This applies especially to rational creatures, so that the latter are able to participate in the universal Logos.32
According to St Theophilus of Antioch, God created all things out of nothing (ex ouk onton ta panta). Therefore, there is no pre-existent matter, although God first creates formless matter and then gives it form. St Irenaeus of Lyons taught that the Son and the Spirit are the two hands of God through whom He creates. In line with most early Christian thinkers, he saw Plato as being closer to an understanding of God and creation than were the Gnostics. From Irenaeus came a fully developed doctrine of creation out of nothing. Thus, God creates and shapes matter in single act, unexplained by Scripture. For the second-century Apologists in general, creation is not an emanation from God (as in Neo-Platonism) or a shaping of pre-existent matter.33 In other words, God creates out of nothing (Latin ex nihilo), without the intermediary of pre-existent or formless matter.
Towards the end of the second century St Clement of Alexandria laid the foundations for the famous theological school based in the leading North African city. Appreciative of worldly knowledge, he saw Christ, the Logos of God, as the Principle uniting all the fragments of knowledge. Regarding creation, Clement rejected the notions that the world is eternal or that is created in time. According to both Genesis and the Timaeus God creates the world out of formless matter, which is initially in a state of relative non-being (me on) until God grants being to it.34 This interpretation of Clement could be viewed as a slight regression in terms of the developing Christian doctrine of creation from nothing. Nonetheless, he taught that God is the cause of every being, and that nothing falls outside His care. Contrary to the Neo-Platonist doctrine of emanation the Alexandrian theologian taught that the world is not necessary for God. In other words, God was God before He became the Creator.35
As far as anthropology is concerned, St Clement accepted the Platonist view that the soul is independent of the body, but he rejected the Gnostic teaching that the soul was sent into this world as punishment. Like St Justin he held that the soul is not immortal by nature, but as a gift in Christ. The Alexandrian theologian thereby preserves the fundamental Christian distinction between Creator and creation, including the soul. Furthermore, Christ is the mediator between the Creator and creation, standing at the head of the cosmic hierarchy of being which is held together by the Holy Spirit.36
Creation in the post-Nicean Patristic understanding
By the fourth century the foundations of Christian theology had been established, a labour of love in which the great Alexandrian and Cappadocian thinkers had played no small part. In his highly influential homilies on Genesis 1, the Hexaemeron, St Basil the Great followed the scriptural details quite closely. According to his interpretation of Genesis 1:1 (‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth’), God first created a spiritual, invisible world for the benefit of the intellectual beings who love Him. This was followed by the creation of the sensible, visible world, both as a training school for souls and as a home for birth and death. At the will of God the cosmos arose in less than an instant, Basil argued. The extremes of heaven and earth refer to the substance of the whole world, including all the intermediate beings that were created at the same time. In creating all the heavens and all the earth, God also created the essence with the form (Hex I.5, 6, 7; II.3).
The statement in Genesis 1:2 that the world was invisible means for St Basil that either there was no person to behold it, or that the earth was submerged under water. It was argued by the Greek father that the terms ‘light’, ‘darkness’ and ‘deep’ in Genesis 1 do not signify opposing deities (as asserted by the Gnostics and the Manicheans), but should be understood literally (Hex II.1, 4). We read further in the same verse that ‘the Spirit of God was stirring above the waters’. This is interpreted by St Basil that the Holy Spirit was preparing the nature of water to produce living beings, in the image of a bird brooding on its eggs (Hex II.6). In a similar vein St John Chrysostom wrote in his Third Homily on Genesis that a fertile power was in the waters, being active and prolific. This enabled all living things by the command of the Creator to emerge from the waters – a striking anticipation of the later discovery that all life on Earth had its origin in the sea. Further light on this interpretation is provided by the Septuagint text in which the continuous tense epephereto (‘was stirring over’) is used.37 These symbolic images in Genesis affirm that God is continuously active in the work of creation within time.
St Basil suggested that creation pre-existed in the mind of God, analogous to an artist knowing the beauty of each part beforehand. Thus the Creator, “who proposed to Himself a manifest design in His works, approved each one of them, as fulfilling its end in accordance with His creative purpose” (Hex III.10). One of the most salient aspects of Basil’s commentary is his interpretation of Genesis 1:11, in which the Divine command is give for the earth to bring forth vegetation. This command became a permanent law for the earth, granting fertility to produce plant life for all ages to come. “Let the earth bring forth by itself without having any need for help from without,” it becomes in Basil’s reading. He would not have agreed with modern views on the wastefulness of nature, since he argued that nothing has been created without reason or use. In addition, God left nothing to chance, but created all things with a motive through His wisdom (Hex V.1, 4, 8). In this way Basil’s cosmology, solidly based on Scripture, finds common ground with the philosophical argument of design as expounded by his mentor in natural philosophy, Aristotle.
Following the creation of the luminary bodies (sun, moon and stars), God commanded the waters to bring forth marine life as well as birds (Genesis 1:20). St Basil commented that everywhere the waters hastened to obey the Creator’s command, and brought forth for the first time beings with life and feeling. This includes aquatic mammals and reptiles as well as amphibians (Hex VII.1). In a striking anticipation of the evolutionary concept of common descent, the Greek father wrote that the swimming motion of fish and the flying motion of birds confirm their common derivation from the waters, making of them one family (Hex VIII.2). When God commanded the earth to bring forth living creatures (Genesis 1:24), He simultaneously gifted it with the power to bring forth, St Basil continues. He holds land animals in high regard, for although they have irrational souls they have memories, and they feel separation, joy and grief. Contrary to aquatic animals, among land animals the soul (psykhe) is in authority over the flesh, their souls being of an earthy substance (‘Let the earth bring forth a living soul’) (Hex VIII.1, 2). Continuing the argument from design, Basil taught that even the poisonous sting of a scorpion was made by God (Hex IX.5). He also continues a number of Aristotle’s errors, for instance that eels proceed directly from mud and not from an egg, and that elephants live to more than 300 years of age (Hex IX.2, 5).
Although St Basil prefers a literal reading of the Genesis text (Hex IX.1), in contrast to the allegorising of Origen, he also finds moral lessons in the waters, the plants, the sun, the moon and the animals. In later commentaries on Genesis, Basil suggests that the scriptural reference to the ‘image of God’ refers to the rational soul, while ‘likeness’ refers to the human vocation to become like God. Genesis 1:26-27 signifies God’s making of the soul, while Genesis 2:7 refers to His fashioning of the body. This applies equally to male and female. According to the Greek Church father, this represents the sole instance in Scripture of how God creates.38
The younger brother and fellow bishop of St Basil, St Gregory of Nyssa, counts as one of the most profound Christian thinkers of all time. Following in his brother’s footsteps he wrote commentaries on Genesis, notably one titled On the making of humanity. Gregory taught that God forms all things from matter which He created on the basis of His own immaterial ideas. Following the Platonist Christian cosmology, Divine creation is seen as two-fold: first there is an instantaneous realisation of God’s ideas in an invisible, spiritual and intelligible manner; and then there is an endowment over a period of time with sensible attributes and materiality. The ‘days’ of Genesis are understood by Gregory as a sequence of self-contained cycles, rather than 24-hour periods. Like his older brother he insists that the text refers to actual water, light, earth and stars, and not to some elemental beings.39
In his commentary on the creation of humankind St Gregory provides a Christian version of the Neo-Platonist teaching of the soul’s descent and return. Humankind was first created as an intellectual, disincarnate being and then on the sixth day as the individual Adam. Only humans belong to both the intelligible and sensible realms, as rational soul and animal respectively. Humankind is therefore the midpoint (methorios) between Divine and animal life, in other words a microcosm of the spiritual and the material spheres. Adam still carried the image of God, but henceforth reflected his dual nature.40 There are two main reasons for human sexual distinction, Gregory suggested. The first reason is a practical one: to procreate like animals, in order to reach the full number (pleroma) conceived by God; sexual distinction is therefore not punitive, and should be use in a holy manner. The second reason is cosmological: male and female is humanity as God intended it to be. Humans were created for immortality, but due to their misuse of free will God grants death like irrational animals.41
A highly relevant concept in the Patristic understanding of creation is that of the universal seed. According to St Basil the Great and St Gregory of Nyssa, the universe and all life in it originated from a single ontological seed implanted by God in the beginning.42 Basil wrote, “This short command (‘Let the earth bring forth’) was in a moment a vast nature, an elaborate system ; thus nature, receiving the impulse of this first command, follows without interruption the course of ages, until the consummation of all ages” (Hex V.10). According to Gregory, from the single Divine creative volition outside time flow the seminal possibilities of things (spermatikai), which develop without any further divine intervention into all the phenomena that constitute the world.43 And the fourteenth-century theologian St Gregory Palamas read Genesis 1:1 as affirming that God creates out of nothing the heavens and the earth as an all-embracing material substance with the potential of giving birth to all things. Therefore the earth and the water were pregnant with the various species of plants and animals. Afterwards God embellished the world in six days, differentiating each by His command alone, as bringing forth from hidden treasuries things stored within and giving them form (Topics, 21, 22).
These Church fathers shared a view of the world containing a seminal force through which God calls the immense variety of life-forms to unfold, from the elements through plants and animals to humans. Furthermore, none of these forms are seen as permanent. St Gregory wrote, “What is the nature of things? The Creator of the elements did not endow them with constancy or permanence. That is, all things are subject to change This change is unceasing among the elements and by necessity they pass into other things, undergo alteration, and change again”.44 This dynamic view of nature could be regarded as compatible with the later discovery of biological evolution.
However, it has to be mentioned that some of the Church fathers believed the species of animals and plants to be permanent. St Basil himself held that the ‘kinds’ of Genesis 1 maintain their nature to the end of time, thanks to the constant reproduction of kind that preserves each particular nature intact (Hex V.2, IX.2). On the other hand he mentions that when pine trees are cut down, they are changed into a forest of oaks (Hex V.7). This latter phenomenon is explained by modern botany as due to acorns having lain hid in the ground until the pines were cleared, and then sprouted. Another Greek theologian, St John Chrysostom, wrote that God’s blessing bestowed permanence on each animal kind.45 These views of permanently static natures have been refuted by both the fossil record and recorded observations of extinctions, even without taking genetic mutation into account. Here we find further confirmation that the Church fathers, like people in general, were informed by the world-view(s) of their time.
What is the place of matter in Greek Patristic thought? According to St Gregory of Nyssa, matter is a certain composition of accidents that proceed from invisible causes to visible matter. It is contained in the four elements, which are simple, incorporeal, and inaccessible to the senses. Further, both Gregory and St Maximus the Confessor saw matter as a fact of energy. The world and everything in it is an effected word (logos) of God. Therefore the human reason meets in nature another reason, or as commented by the Greek Orthodox philosopher Christos Yannaras, knowledge of nature is dialogical.46 This is another argument against the wanton disregard for the natural world that humankind has been displaying for so long.
In the Patristic understanding God created time together with the world. As St Basil wrote, “Thus was created, of a nature analogous to that of this world and the animals and plants which live thereon, the succession of time, for ever pressing on and passing away and never stopping in its course... And such also is the nature of the creature which lives in time - condemned to grow or to perish without rest and without certain stability. It is therefore fit that the bodies of animals and plants, obliged to follow a sort of current, and carried away by the motion which leads them to birth or to death, should live in the midst of surroundings whose nature is in accord with beings subject to change” (Hex 1.5). The great mystical theologian St Dionysius the Areopagite noted that time is related to the process of change, for instance birth, death, and variety. Thus in Scripture eternity is the abode of being, while time is the abode of becoming (Divine Names 10:3). This coincidence of time, creation and change implies, as commented by Kalomiros, that God did not need six ‘days’ to complete His creation - on the contrary, creation needed time for its unfolding.47 And this unfolding is still continuing, as new life-forms are created through the evolutionary processes.
In his summary of Greek Patristic teachings, St John of Damascus declared that creation out of nothing produces a subject infinitely removed from God, not according to place but according to nature. Furthermore, creation takes place according to God’s will, not according to God’s nature. Creation is therefore not co-eternal with God, but represents a movement from non-being to being. As the Russian Orthodox theologian Vladimir Lossky commented, the creature therefore has no ontological ground either in itself or in the divine essence.48 This implies that God is the source of the whole creation, both intelligible and sensible. Nothing can exist outside of God (to be more precise, outside of the divine energies), and all things reflect an aspect of the Divinity.49 St Dionysius wrote in this regard that the Good (i.e. God) is the source of all that exists: the archetypes, the heavenly beings, rational souls, irrational animals, plants, and inanimate matter (Divine Names 4: 1, 2).
Another significant implication of the Patristic cosmology is that creation is seen as an organic whole. All living creatures are branches of the same tree and shoots from the same primordial seed, kept in existence through the divine energies in which all life participates. As St Gregory of Nyssa suggested in his Great Catechism, ‘so that one grace of a sort might equally pervade the whole creation, the lower nature being mixed with the supra-mundane’.50 This organic inter-connectedness of all life on Earth is due to the fact of physical birth, since every living creature is born from another living creature. Through physical birth the genetic inheritance of the parents is transmitted to the offspring, thus continuing the flow of genes that makes life possible. Therefore the idea of the fixity of species, with the first individual of each species being independent from all others, amounts to an ontological fragmentation of creation, as Kalomiros correctly observed.51
It appears that some of the Greek Church fathers had an understanding of creation that might be compatible with an evolutionary model. We can mention aspects of their thought such as the single, universal seed implanted by God from which all life arose; the impermanence and mutability of all created things; the mutual dependence of time and becoming; and the inter-connectedness of all life on Earth. We will now proceed to consider the theory of biological evolution.
The rise of evolutionary thought
The philosophical antecedents of evolutionary thought can be traced to the cosmology of the early Hellenic thinker Heraclitus (ca 535-475 BC). He taught that everything flows (panta rei): nothing is, but everything becomes. Reality is seen as consisting of pairs of opposites such as day and night, male and female, and war and peace – all of which are in conflict with each other. This struggle brings forth becoming, although we are deceived by our senses to surmise that things are permanent and unchanging. Heraclitus made the celebrated statement that struggle is the father of all things, of all things the king (polemos panton men pater esti, panton de basileus).52 This notion of ceaseless struggle would much later become fundamental to the thought of Malthus and Darwin.
The observation that evolution occurs did not present itself suddenly and unequivocally to the scientific community. Intimations of it had been in the air for some time before Charles Darwin published his theory. He actually added a ‘Historical Sketch’ to the third edition of The Origin of Species in 1861, to acknowledge prior developments in evolutionary thought. Darwin commented on the remarkable coincidence that similar anticipations on the origin of life had arisen at the same time (in 1794/5): in Germany with Goethe, in England with Erasmus Darwin, and in France with Geoffrey St Hilaire.53 The naturalist Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of Charles, had written a treatise called Zoonomia. In it he proposed that all the warm-blooded animals are descended from a single filament created by the First Cause, and enabled to improve itself over time through modifications, such modifications being passed on to its progeny. This idea anticipated the work of Lamarck by a few years.
One of Darwin’s greatest predecessors was the French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829). He became the first thinker to expound a coherent theory of evolution in a number of works published in the early years of the nineteenth century. Notable among these was Philosophie Zoologique (1809), in which he postulated that all species, including man, descended from other species. He taught that the evolution of life consists of two forces working in tandem: a complexifying force that gradually drives organisms to more complexity, and an adaptive force that differentiates organisms according to environmental pressures. As organisms interact with their environment, characteristics such as bodily organs would become either strengthened through use of weakened through disuse. These acquired characteristics are then inherited if both parents alike transmit it to their offspring. This theory of the inheritance of acquired characteristics, also known as Lamarckism, would remain popular until it was discredited in the late nineteenth century by the new science of genetics. Nevertheless, Lamarck would be credited by Darwin as the major progenitor of evolutionary thought, although the latter rejected the Frenchman’s belief in progressive development.54
The economist Thomas Malthus (1766-1834), who published the influential Essay on the Principles of Population in 1798, was another important precursor to Darwin. According to Malthus, in an industrial economy the population growth regularly outstrips the growth of food production. The inevitable result of this phenomenon is mass misery, which can only be prevented by birth control measures. This economic hypothesis of a ceaseless struggle for existence had a profound effect on Darwin’s thought.
A decisive influence on Darwin was the Scottish geologist Charles Lyell (1797-1875), both through his work and his friendship. Lyell became famous with the publication of his Principles of Geology in three volumes from 1830 onwards. In it he postulated the theory of uniformitarianism, according to which the present is the key to the past. The work describes how geological processes occur through minute changes over immense periods of time, thus providing the temporal context for biological evolution. This view was clearly opposed to the traditional Christian view that the Earth was around 6,000 years old. Darwin would apply Lyell’s insights while journeying on the Beagle, and on his return to England they became close friends. Some years later, in 1863, the Scotsman published Geological Evidences of the Antiquity of Man, in which he discussed evolution among other topics. Although being supportive of Darwin and his work, Lyell was also a devout Christian, struggling to reconcile his faith in Divine providence with natural selection.
In 1844 a controversial work named Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation was published by another Scotsman, Robert Chambers. He argued that the solar system, the Earth, and all life on Earth came into being through evolution. This did not happen by chance, as the Darwinian tradition would later proclaim. Although all beings evolved from simpler forms through increasing levels of organisation as well as adaptation to environment, it all occurred under divine Providence.55 This radical idea, for its time, would exercise a profound influence on the young Alfred Wallace, among others. It also anticipated the Christian evolutionary model of Teilhard de Chardin in the twentieth century.
Darwin and Darwinism
After many years of zoological and botanical research, the English naturalist Charles Darwin (1809-1882) published his findings in 1859 in On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. According to Darwin’s theory, all life-forms on Earth have evolved from common ancestors over immense periods of time, also called ‘deep time’. From the outset this view appeared to oppose the prevailing belief that all species of plants and animals had been created separately by Divine edict. Instead, nature was now seen as a continuum, in which all life-forms are descended from less than four or five progenitors. He summarised this view as follows: “Therefore I should infer from analogy that probably all the organic beings which have ever lived on this earth have descended from some one primordial form, into which life was first breathed.”56 It is of interest to note that Darwin did not concern himself with the origin of life itself.57 In principle his theory could therefore be accommodated within a theistic perspective, with God recognised as the ultimate Cause of life.
Although Darwin emphasised the role of natural selection in the evolutionary process, he never taught natural selection to have been the sole cause of evolutionary changes. On the contrary, in the introduction to The Origin of Species he wrote that natural selection has been the main but not exclusive means of modification.58 This caveat has apparently been lost on the ultra-Darwinists of our time. Another aspect of Darwin’s theory that is often neglected, with so much emphasis placed on the struggle for existence, is the complementary view of the mutual relatedness of all organic beings. Darwin wrote of how plants and animals are bound together by a web of complex relations. This relatedness pertains especially to structure: “ the structure of every organic being is related, in the most essential yet often hidden manner, to that of all other organic beings, with which it comes into competition for food or residence, or from which it has to escape, or on which it preys”.59 Although Darwin thus recognised the organic relatedness of all life, it was in his view based on competition rather than a shared genetic inheritance.
Darwin concluded his epoch-making book with a statement that could have come from one of the Greek Church fathers quoted earlier: “There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”60 It should be mentioned that from the second edition of the work onwards, Darwin added the phrase ‘by the Creator’ after the words ‘originally breathed’. He later admitted to have done this for two reasons: firstly, to placate his wife Emma, who was a devout Christian; and secondly, to soften the impact of his theory among the public. The reference to a Creator thus appears to have been a tactical maneuver, with Darwin himself believing that natural selection does not require any Divine influence to operate efficiently.
The evolutionary understanding of the origin and diversity of life would eventually become the dominant scientific paradigm. Evolution is in fact the unifying theory in the life sciences, providing as it does a rational explanation of the diversity of life. We should also note that Darwin’s discovery of evolution did not occur outside the larger orbit of scientific thought. It was situated within the context of empirical evidence from the disciplines of astronomy (demonstrating the immensity of space) and geology (demonstrating the immensity of time). The concept of evolution is therefore not limited to biological theory, but is encountered throughout the natural sciences.
The main weakness of Darwin’s theory at the time was the absence of transitional forms in the fossil record, as admitted by the naturalist himself. It should be kept in mind that he postulated evolution by means of natural selection before palaeontology became established as a scientific discipline. However, within two years of The Origin of Species being published, a fossil of a bird-like reptile called Archaeopteryx was discovered (in 1861). This provided empirical evidence of a probable transition from reptiles to birds, although this link has not been accepted by all scientists. Towards the end of the nineteenth century the first hominid fossils were discovered, providing evidence of human descent from ape-like ancestors as Darwin had suggested in The Descent of Man (1871). Thanks to the labour of numerous palaeontologists a number of intermediate forms have been discovered during the course of the twentieth century. These include vertebrate species showing the transition from marine to terrestrial life, from reptiles to mammals, and from terrestrial to marine mammals.
Darwin’s theory could feasibly describe the diversity of the natural world, but could not explain where it came from. Kuraev employs manufacturing terminology to comment that natural selection only works in already existing diversity, deciding which forms will go into ‘mass production’ and which will be discarded. In other words, natural selection can be seen as nature’s quality control, but not as manufacturer.61 In the aftermath of Darwin’s pioneering work the mechanism for the transformation from one species to another awaited clarification, and the evidence from genetics would fulfil this conceptual need.
The variations in animal and plant species that Darwin observed takes place according to the laws of heredity, which were discovered and formulated by the Austrian botanist Gregor Mendel (1822-1884). Through years of work involving thousands of plant crossings and artificial fertilisations, this Augustinian monk observed the hereditary changes, or mutations, that occurred from generation to generation. His theory of heredity showed that the inherited characteristics of each parent remained intact rather than blend with the other. Mendel would later deservedly come to be called the father of genetics.
After years of neglect Mendels’ pioneering work was rediscovered by the Dutch botanist Hugo de Vries (1848-1935). He had already in 1889 published a book in which he argued that specific traits in organisms are inherited, carried along by particles he called ‘pangenes’. This term would eventually become ‘genes’. During the 1890’s De Vries conducted a series of experiments with plant hybrids that confirmed the results of Mendel’s earlier work. He published his work in 1900, initially neglecting to mention Mendel. In an early anticipation of punctuated equilibrium, De Vries postulated a mutation theory according to which new species arose suddenly, rather than gradually as in Darwinism. Another step forward was taken by the geneticist Thomas Morgan, whose experimental work with fruit flies led him to the conclusion that mutations increase the genetic variation among a given population, but do not create new species in a single step.
A key link in the conceptual chain of evolutionary thought was provided by the discipline of population genetics, established by the researchers Fisher, Haldane and Wright. In a number of papers and books published between 1918 and 1932, highly mathematical in nature, they demonstrated the compatibility of genetics on the one hand and evolution driven by natural selection on the other. In 1937 a landmark work called Genetics and the Origin of Species was published by the Ukrainian-born geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky (1900-1976), who had been a co-worker with Morgan in research on fruit flies. He now brought together the theoretical arguments of population genetics and the empirical evidence of naturalists in a more accessible form. Dobzhansky showed that the real world contains far more genetic variability than was assumed earlier. Therefore, natural selection not only drives evolutionary change but also maintains genetic diversity. This combination of the evolutionary mechanisms of genetic variation and natural selection would become known as the Neo-Darwinian synthesis, or the modern evolutionary synthesis.
The important discipline of paleontology also became drawn into the emerging paradigm. George Simpson published Tempo and Mode in Evolution in 1944, arguing that natural selection was in fact compatible with the paleontological evidence. Instead of showing linear progression, the fossil record demonstrated the evolutionary process as being irregular and branching: precisely as the modern synthesis had predicted. As if to crown the matter, botany was drawn into the synthesis by Ledyard Stebbins, who published Variation and Evolution in Plants in 1950. During the first half of the twentieth century, therefore, the disciplines of genetics, paleontology and botany were all added to the Darwinian legacy in order to form the modern evolutionary synthesis.
The most significant scientific challenge to the modern evolutionary synthesis is the theory of punctuated equilibrium, of which the American palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2002) has been the leading exponent. With his colleague Niles Eldredge he postulated the theory of punctuated equilibrium in a 1972 paper. They argued that the fossil record does not agree with the Darwinian thesis of gradual transformation, but rather indicates long periods of stasis followed by the sudden appearance of new forms.62 This speciation occurs when small segments of a population are isolated at the geographic periphery of the bulk of a species. Under environmental pressure favourable genetic variations spread quickly, until they have become established as new species. To be fair, Darwin himself did note the sudden appearance of species and their lack of substantial change in the fossil record, but thought that it was due to the incompleteness of the latter.63 However, according to Gould the fossil record is a faithful rendering of what evolutionary theory predicts in the light of punctuated equilibrium.
The oldest rocks to retain fossils, being those of prokaryotic cells (such as bacteria) and stromatolites, date back to around 3.5 billion years. This age implies that life remained exclusively unicellular for five sixths of its history on Earth, since multicellular organisms only began appearing around 600 million years ago. In this time the vital transition from simple prokaryotic cells to eukaryotic cells containing nuclei and mitochondria took place. Gould remarked on the phenomenon that all the major stages in the organisation of multicellular architecture for animal life occurred between 600 and 530 million years ago. This was followed by the remarkable Cambrian explosion starting around 530 million years ago, during which in the space of a mere five million years all but one modern phylum of animal life appeared in the fossil record. In Gould’s view the past 500 million years of animal life amounts to little more than variations on anatomical themes established during the Cambrian explosion.64
Another pertinent contribution by Gould is his view that science and religion are ‘non-overlapping magisteria’ (NOMA), as postulated in his book Rocks of Ages (1999). Science deals with empirical facts and the theories to explain them, while religion deals with questions of meaning and value. Both science and religion are therefore necessary and meaningful human endeavours. Gould pleaded for a respectful concordat between the magisteria of religion and science, arguing that NOMA is based on moral and intellectual grounds, and does not represent a merely diplomatic solution.65 This position of Gould implies that both atheistic scientists and religious fundamentalists are in the wrong with their misguided attacks on each other.
The English palaeontologist Simon Conway Morris (born 1951) achieved scientific renown with his detailed work on the fascinating Burgess Shale fossils in Canada. His research there earned him the admiration of Gould, although the two drew divergent conclusions from the evidence. In his book The Crucible of Creation (1998) Conway Morris argues that the Burgess Shale fossils became extinct because they were ill adapted to their environment. The latter is always the result of physical and biochemical laws, and this constrains the types of organisms to develop within certain limits. These laws will therefore ensure that the carbon atoms found in stars will eventually combine into long molecules capable of replication, that these molecules will build bodies sensitive to heat and light, and that these bodies will be capable of movement in their environment, with their sense organs situated towards the front end.66 In other words, there appears to be a limited number of pathways that evolution can follow.
As a result of his research on the fossils of soft-bodied fauna in many parts of the world, Conway Morris has become the leading thinker on evolutionary convergence in our time. Convergence is the phenomenon that similar biological characteristics occur in unrelated life forms. A well-known instance of convergence is the wings of birds and bats, with similarity in construction. Another example is that of the marsupial mammals in Australia filling similar ecological niches as their placental counterparts in Africa and Eurasia. In his thought-provoking book Life’s Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe (2003), Conway Morris discusses the conditions for the development of intelligent life. These include a planet of the right size and distance from the local star, in order to prevent freezing or frying; a large satellite to ensure suitable tidal action of the planet’s waters; protection against wandering comets (the role played by Jupiter in our case); and an atmosphere to allow safe amounts of radiation to reach the planet’s surface. It appears that these conditions are so precise and varied, that intelligent life perhaps arose only once in the vast universe.67 The other side of the coin is that the constraints of life make the emergence of various biological properties highly probable, if not inevitable.68
Conway Morris discusses numerous cases of convergence in the animal and plant kingdoms in Life’s Solution. From all this evidence, he concludes that the entire evolutionary process from the birth of the cosmos inevitably led to the appearance of intelligence-bearing humans on Earth. Thus, if repeated, evolution would produce more or less the same results and not infinite possibilities of variation, as Gould insisted. It is not surprising that Conway Morris has been accused by the ultra-Darwinists of ‘reviving the ghost of teleology’ in biology. After all, a scientific admission of purpose in nature would be a blow to the atheistic claim that all the evolutionary processes are ruled by contingency alone.
This recognition of widespread convergence in evolution should not be seen as counter to the Darwinian mechanism of natural selection. Rather, Conway Morris argues, convergence is a product of natural selection. He suggests that convergence actually confirms the reality of organic evolution, against the claims of the so-called ‘creation scientists’. Furthermore, the organic world has a rational structure, implying that both simplicity and complexity will arise through adaptation.69 In postulating a rational structure for the world, Conway Morris echoes the teaching of the Greek Church fathers that the cosmos is grounded in the divine Logos, Who creates the world through the reasons (logoi) that indwells all things.
Towards the end of Life’s Solution, a number of facts about evolution that are congruent with Divine creation are listed.70 Firstly, there is the underlying simplicity of evolution, based on a handful of building blocks. Secondly, in a vast universe of possibilities, life keeps navigating to the minimum that works. In the third place there is the adaptive sensitivity of the process and the product. Next, complexity arises as much through modification of pre-existing building blocks as through novelties. Furthermore, the vastness of biological diversity is balanced by widespread evolutionary convergence. Finally, the emergence of sentience among animals appears to be inevitable. This is indeed an impressive range of congruence.