The Flood

475px-DelugeAlthough we think about the flood as a staple Sunday school tale, it is rather gruesome. We have not a cute progression of animals trekking to safety two by two, but a tale of utter destruction – of the undoing of creation as related in Genesis 1-5. Who would put a picture like the one to the right on wall of their nursery? But we concentrate on cute animals, gloss over the details, and marvel and the merciful covenant established by God signified by the beautiful rainbow.

In reality, there are few passages in Genesis, or indeed in all of Scripture, that raise as many questions as the story of the flood in Genesis 6-8.

Who were the sons of God who “took wives for themselves of all that they chose?”

And how about the Nephilim … “the heroes that were of old, warriors of renown?”

What are we to make of the statement that “the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart?”

Noah was the only one righteous among thousands and thousands?

Where did all the water come from?

How did the animals get to the ark?

How did they fit, including food for all?

How did they handle the waste?

Where did the animals get food after landfall? (Both herbivores and carnivores would have problems finding food.)

And this is only the tip of the iceberg.

The folks at Answers in Genesis have answers for all of these. The construction of The Ark Encounter, opening later this summer has forced them to address the questions. But frankly the answers are not consistent. Interestingly, one of the answers involves populating the Ark with “kinds” from which our current diversity of animals descended, with modification by natural selection … but don’t call it “evolution.” A cat kind, a dog kind, an elephant kind. This would require a rate of change in both genetic sequence and phenotype over only a thousand years or less that boggles the mind.

There is absolutely no evidence for a global flood covering the earth, or for a bottleneck in human and animal populations a mere four thousand three hundred and sixty three years ago. Human culture itself is far older, continuous, and dispersed around the globe. As just one example, John Walton notes in his Zondervan Illustrated Bible Background Commentary on Genesis that “no convincing archaeological evidence of anything approaching the size of the biblical flood has been uncovered.” Although there is abundant evidence for floods in Mesopotamia, the traces in different places have different dates. And “other cities whose occupation spans this time period (such as Jericho, continuously occupied from 7000 B.C.) contain no flood deposits whatsoever.” (p. 50)

But if we focus on the problems we will miss the intent of the original author/editor. The story of Noah and The Flood is included in the text of scripture for a reason. If we take scripture seriously we need to focus first on the message conveyed by the story.

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The Genes Agree – The Answer Is No

Evolution and BeliefNo, evolution isn’t a theory in trouble. There is ample evidence for common descent and evolution by natural selection.

The last posts on Robert Asher’s book Evolution and Belief: Confessions of a Religious Paleontologist considered fossil evidence for evolution. Dr. Asher is a specialist in mammalian evolution as evidenced in the fossil record, Curator of Vertebrates at the Museum of Zoology, Cambridge UK. In previous chapters he ran through the evidence for the evolution of mammals, elephants, and whales. Evidence for transitional forms is abundant. The fossil record contains clear evidence for transitions from the original tetrapods to the separate lines of synapsids leading to mammals and sauropsids leading to dinosaurs, reptiles, and birds (Always in Transition) . Within mammals there is abundant fossil evidence for transitions between elephants and transitions from a land dwelling species to the modern whales (The Fossils Say No!). This is only the tip of the fossil record iceberg … and the fossil record is only one of the lines of evidence for evolution. The DNA evidence is equally abundant and equally convincing. Chapters nine and ten of Asher’s book provide an introduction to the DNA

Common descent implies common ancestors, and this can be traced through DNA.

Having a common ancestor means specifically that different animals alive today – chimp and human, for example – can trace their heritage to a real population of interbreeding animals in the distant past that lived in a specific place at a specific time, and furthermore had a uniform anatomical and genetic make-up. It would be reasonable to conclude that if evolution actually happened, then two animals descended from an immediate common ancestor would show more similarity (anatomical, genetic, paleontological, and geographic) than either would with a more distant relative. (p. 158)

It is important not to be two simplistic in the analysis however.

[D]ifferences may accumulate in one animal or plan lineage more slowly than in another, for example leading to a descendant that is similar to its parent and very different from its sibling. Similarity that has nothing to do with common ancestry may result from adaptations to a similar environment (digging, swimming, foraging at night), or the unpredictability of mutation and fossilization. Changes in sea level and mobile continents enable some animals to disperse together to a certain area whether or not they are closely related. (p. 159)

But the evidence tells us that these events are relatively uncommon. DNA sequences can be used to build up phylogenetic trees illustrating the connections between different species of plants and animals.

DNA TreeMuch of the genetic evidence is readily available to anyone with internet access. Asher provides general instructions as well as a link to the mitochondrial DNA coding for cytochrome b that he used to construct a phylogenetic tree for thirteen vertebrates ranging from a fish (Couch’s goby) to humans. Small data sets (like the cytochrome b gene) can provide a rough tree, while larger genetic data sets may change some of the details. A simple analysis of similarities in cytochrome b usine the criterion of parsimony (the simplest explanation is the best) provides the tree on the left side of this figure. Larger data sets, with the RAG-1 gene as an example, demonstrate the close relationship between the birds (ostrich and thrush) and the crocodile. This is one piece of evidence, corroborated by others, that birds evolved from dinosaurs.

We observed in Chapter 4 how the fossil record is also consistent with the tree depicted {in the figure above} … So now we’ve got anatomy, development, the fossil record, and DNA sequences from the mitochondrial and nuclear genome showing us the same basic pattern. We can establish that this pattern is not due to ecology or physiology, and it is clearly not a chance result from the immense number of possible genealogies among sampled organisms. In the parlance of a prosecuting attorney, the observations are analogous to finding a bloodstain on the victim matching your suspect, in addition to a bogus alibi, fingerprints, eyewitness testimony, and a confession. The ability to predict such correspondence in patterns across very different sources of data doesn’t just happen unless you’ve got a process behind it, and we do: evolution by natural selection. (p. 166)

When investigators make a mistake or speculate outside the strength of the evidence other scientists are quick to jump on it an publish rebuttals, sometimes rubbing it in ruthlessly. (Asher cites an example in an endnote.)

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Must We Play the Game?

IMG_0141 rotate dsThe next chapter of Matthew Nelson Hills new book Evolution and Holiness: Sociobiology, Altruism, and the Quest for Weslyan Perfection explores a topic at the cutting edge of science – the existence or not of human freedom … the free will question. This is a question I’ve posted on a number of times over the years. Is there any such thing as free will? Not libertine free will with choice unconstrained by body, brain. This clearly doesn’t exist. We are embodied creatures. Choice can be constrained by injury to the brain, by past experience, by addictive predispositions. The question is more fundamental than this – do we have any more real freedom than the bowl of sugar has?

Anthony R. Cashmore wrote his inaugural article following election to the National Academy of Science on The Lucretian swerve: The biological basis of human behavior and the criminal justice system. I posted on this article shortly after it appeared (Is Free Will Anti-Science?). In his article Cashmore argues that we have no more free will than a bacterium or a bowl of sugar. He isn’t describing a Newtonian determinism – rather he is pointing out that a combination of genes, environment and stochasticism (i.e. randomness) governs all of biology, including behavior. While the introduction of randomness into response eliminates a strict determinism, it does not introduce a “will.” A free will requires some degree of feedback control. There is no physical mechanism for “will” to exercise control.

A belief in free will is akin to religious beliefs. Indeed I would argue that free will makes “logical sense,” as long as one has the luxury of the “causal magic” of religion. Neither religious belief, nor a belief in free will, comply with the laws of the physical world. (p. 4502).

Cashmore suggests that free will is an illusion having evolutionary selective advantage. “Consciousness confers the illusion of responsibility.”

A couple of years later the The Chronicle Review section of The Chronicle of Higher Education explored the question of free will starting with a rather provocative cover.

You may think you decided to read this.

You’re wrong.

In fact, a scientific consensus is emerging:

Free will is an illusion.

We looked at the question raised by the essayists in this issue in a post Is Free Will an Illusion?. The views ranged from reductive materialism, something like the view presented by Cashmore, to deliberation of the workings of the human mind and the constraints and impact of human society on decision making.

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And Cain Knew His Wife

263px-Zhdan_Dementiyev_01_Seth_(1630)Where did Cain get his wife?

Did people really live 900+ years?

Who cares who begot who? Can we get to the action?!

Perhaps the most boring genre in the Bible is the genealogy – or at least it can seem so from our twenty first century perspective. They raise questions at times – especially for those who want to take the Bible seriously – but they don’t make for exciting reading. The author/editor of Genesis, on the other hand, clearly valued the genealogy as a key part of the story he was telling. There are a number of genealogies in Genesis each with an important purpose in the story line. The first of these come in Genesis 4:17-5:23 relating the descendants first of Cain and then of Adam’s third son, Seth.

How should we read these genealogies? What is the take-home message?

Bishop Ussher in the mid 1600’s famously used the biblical genealogies to October 23rd, 4004 BC. This was unfortunate. Among other things, it represents a misunderstanding of the literary form and structure of genealogies in the ancient Near East. In fairness to the bishop, this isn’t something he could have been expected to know in the mid 1600’s, but it is clear today. Tremper Longmann III (Genesis in the Story of God Bible Commentary) writes:

Not all these genealogies are of the same type or purpose, but no matter what precise type of genealogy we must remember that these are ancient Near eastern, not modern Western genealogies.

… Ancient genealogies are fluid; that is they can change order to reflect contemporary social and political realities. They can also skip generations rendering them useless for trying to compute how much actual time is covered by the genealogy. According to Wilson, “genealogies are not normally created for historical purposes. They are not intended to be historical records. rather in the Bible, as well as in the ancient Near Eastern literature and in the anthropological material, genealogies seem to have been created for domestic, political-jural, and religious purposes, and historical information is preserved in the genealogies only incidentally.” (p, 94, quoting Robert R. Wilson, Genealogy and History in the Biblical World p. 199)

Nor is the duration of time in the Bible always reported in a modern Western literal sense. As an example, the common occurrence of 40 days or years in a wide range of contexts is significant as a long time, but not always (probably not usually) intended with mathematical precision. Forty is the symbolic number for a generation.

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East of Eden

Peter_Paul_Rubens_-_Cain_slaying_Abel,_1608-1609Chapter 4 of Genesis begins on what should be a happy note, the birth of two sons, but things quickly go south.

Now the man knew his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, “I have produced a man with the help of the Lord.” Next she bore his brother Abel. Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground. In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel for his part brought of the firstlings of his flock, their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell. The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.” (v. 1-7)

Why did God reject Cain’s offering? Some attempt to compare the occupation of Cain and Abel and find the reason there. Or God desires a blood offering rather than some vegetable matter. Tremper Longman III (Genesis in the Story of God Bible Commentary), John Walton (The NIV Application Commentary Genesis), and Bill Arnold (Genesis (New Cambridge Bible Commentary)) all agree that this is a move in the wrong direction. The text does not institute such offerings as a religious ritual, it assumes the offerings as gifts to the one responsible for the bounty of their labor. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with a grain offering, especially as it represents the fruit of Cain’s labor. The most likely place is in the open generosity of the offering. Did Cain give willingly of his best or begrudgingly of that he wouldn’t miss? Walton notes that “Cain’s offering is not specifically criticized for its poor quality, but neither does the text specify that it is from the firstfruits.” (p. 263) Ultimately Walton is noncommittal, “the only thing the text makes clear is that Cain, in some way, does not do what [was] right.” (p. 263) Arnold comes to a similar conclusion, while Longman is more convinced that the problem lay in the willingness of Cain reflected in the quality of his gift. “Abel is enthusiastic in his worship, while Cain is basically disinterested.”

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The Serpent in the Garden

Eve-and-the-SerpentAll was going along great. Adam, Eve, Garden, God. And then, appearing from nowhere, the serpent was in the garden. The first verse of Genesis 3 introduces the character.

Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”

Christians are quick to identify the serpent with “the devil” or Satan, but this wasn’t the image brought to mind for the ancient Near Eastern audience. However, the serpent was recognizable to this audience as an evil force in the story. Tremper Longman, in his Commentary on Genesis, notes that serpents play a negative role in many ancient Near Eastern texts.

The serpent was in the garden. Adam and Eve are not responsible for the serpent’s appearance. They did not introduce imperfection into a previously perfect creation. They are, however, responsible for their response to the serpent. Adam was placed in the garden “to work it and take care of it” or better “to work it and guard it.” Longman points out that the word translated “take care of” is often translated “guard” and this gives a better nuance to Adam’s task. Eve, as Adam’s suitable counterpartner, shared in this task. Among other things, they were to guard the sacred space against evil. Instead they listened to the serpent and ate of the fruit of the forbidden tree.

There is an important point here. Genesis 1-2 do not depict the creation of a perfect world free from all pain and suffering. Adam was going to have to work, Eve would experience pain in childbirth. The consequences of their disobedience intensify the work and multiply the pain.

Indeed, we know from the story of Genesis 3 that not only was there suffering and pain that was “intrinsic” to creation, but there was already the presence of moral evil that was “extrinsic” to it. After all, we have the presence of the serpent before human rebellion. Adam had been commissioned to “guard” the garden against such attacks, thus there was hostility before the fall.

With this in mind we go back now to the account of creation, particularly in Genesis 1, and note that the picture is not so much God creating a world without suffering and pain and chaos, but rather it is the story of his restraint rather than removal of non-moral suffering, pain, and chaos. (p. 79)

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Is Intelligent Design Dead?

William Blake Ancient of DaysA decade ago Intelligent Design with a capital I and a capital D was a hot topic. A major trial testing the teaching of the ID in Pennsylvania was decided in late 2005 and Stephen C. Meyer’s massive book Signature in the Cell was published in 2009. It was a common topic in evangelical churches – viewed as a way to combat the evil influence of evolution. Quite frankly, it was a topic I was ready to see disappear. The controversy was tainting most conversations about Christianity in my circles at the University. Today there are other points of contention and Intelligent Design has moved to the back pages.

Is Intelligent Design dead?

Should it be? Is there merit to the idea, and if so where?

To be clear every Christian believes that the world is intelligently designed for a purpose. Although this is a point of contention for some in the secular world, it isn’t a point of controversy for Christians. From the young earth creationist to the evolutionary creationist and everyone between, we believe that God is at work in the world and humans are part of his plan and purpose. We are not merely a stop in the purposeless, contingent ramble of life forms through the space of biological possibility.

The Intelligent Design movement is different and goes beyond this. The hypothesis is that an intelligence behind the world can be identified empirically in the complexity of life. In his book The Faithful Creator, Ron Highfield spends some time digging into the ID movement and the theological implications of this idea. In particular he deals with William Dembski’s work on information content in DNA.

According to Dembski, studying DNA with the same methods researchers use to seek for signs of extraterrestrial intelligent life compels us to conclude that DNA bears the marks of intelligent design: contingency, complexity, and specificity. … The random mutation (chance) and natural selection (law) mechanisms of Darwinian theory, contends Dembski, cannot account for biological objects that exemplify “specified complexity.” Darwinian law and chance can do a good job “conserving, adapting, and honing already existing biological structures,” but they cannot account for the origin of these information rich structures. (pp. 161-162)

Although intelligent design theory alone says nothing about the designer per se, the existence of a designer leaves an obvious place where theology and science can be mutually supportive.

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