בראשית ברא אלהים
את השמים ואת
הארץ׃

In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth.

In the Unites States, at least, there exists a massive rift between the ideas of evolution and Christianity. As a Christian student of Biology and Chemistry, I have seen far too many casualties of this unnecessary dichotomy – I’ve watched friends’ faith collapse into nihilistic lifelessness, and more often witnessed intellectual stonewall, where all hope of reason and discussion are shut out in defense against these “evil thoughts.” In the mind of non-believers, this behavior has helped cement the idea that Christianity is a discipline for the irrational, and has further polarized the sides.

I am writing this as a humble attempt at bridging the divide, and to show how an honest examination of both the science and scripture reveals no need for discord. While this letter is geared towards a Christian audience, it may be useful for anyone interested in this discussion. In my experience, I have found that Christians are most hostile to evolution when they have never thoroughly examined their own interpretation of Genesis. For this reason, I will begin by addressing scripture, and then introduce the scientific theory and evidence.

Genesis is Not a Biology Textbook

Biblical Genres and Genesis

In daily life, as you encounter books, movies, TV shows, YouTube clips, or even text messages, you are almost instantly aware of their genres – whether the content is educational, comedy, satire, a tutorial, news, a novel, or a textbook – and the messages you chose to take away are completely dependent on the content’s genre. For example, watching an episode of The Office or 30 Rock as a comedy gives lots of laughs and a satirical description of business ironies in America. On the other hand, watching those same shows as instruction manuals would lead to atrocious business practices and an enormous amount of wasted time! Genre is so important that we can often infer a document’s type without ever seeing its content: a novel is small, paperback, and fits easily in the hands, while a text book is large and usually hardcover; “legal size” paper distinguishes such documents from smaller less formal papers.
The books of the Bible also come in many genres, including letter, genealogy, myth, law, poetry, and several more. It is just as important to experience the books of the bible in the context of appropriate genre as it is for modern works. Take David’s 23rd psalm for example, which reads,

The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever. (Psalms 23, KJV)

Surely insisting on literal interpretation would be an injustice to this beautiful poem! It’s certainly possible to use these lines to insist that God forces His people to “lie down in green pastures,” but doing so misses the entire point. Let’s read the first few lines of Genesis, keeping an eye out for genre:

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. (Genesis 1:1-3, NIV)

Even as a translation, thousands of years after their initial construction, these words elicit powerful, moving images – just think about how you would direct this in a film. Even the biggest skeptic must admit that something meaningful is lost when this passage is treated as a part of a creation logbook.

Genesis 1, or Genesis 2?

There are many issues with interpreting Genesis outside of its literary genre, especially by reading it as a scientific text. Not the least of these is the presence of two strikingly different creation stories, one in chapter 1, and the other in chapter 2. The chapters describe two very different creation stories, with different timelines and orders of creation. The first story contains the 6-day creation typically followed by Young Earth Creationists in which man is the very last creation. The second account begins with the creation of man:

Now no shrub had yet appeared on the earth and no plant had yet sprung up… then the LORD God formed a man from the dust of the ground… (Genesis 2:5, NIV)

A literalist’s interpretation of these chapters argues against itself as convincingly as it argues against evolution.
In reality, these two accounts are written by different authors, during different periods, even using different names for God: the first uses “Elohim” which is a generic ancient near-east word for “gods” and is typically translated into its plural form. Vestiges of this plurality appear in the pronouns of Genesis 1:

Then God [Elohim] said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness… (Genesis 1:26, NIV)

The second chapter uses the Hebrew God’s personal name, given first to Moses, Yahweh, as indicated by the use of “LORD God” in translated text.

Limits of Language

In addition to literary genre, there are many other contexts that should be considered when reading Genesis, all which give support to a non-literalistic interpretation. One important consideration is the limited ability of ancient language to describe cosmic or biological phenomena. Even if God enlightened the writer to all the mechanisms of creation and the universe, there would be no possible way to record them – the words to describe genomes or nuclear reactions did not exist. It would have been impossible to write a scientific account of creation, just as it would have been impossible for anyone else to read it.

The Process of Evolution

Evolution’s Genre

Evolution is a scientific theory, and, just like scripture, must be read within the context of its genre; a scientific theory does not comment on the existence or nonexistence of God – it, by definition, proposes a process observed in nature; it cannot deal with the supernatural and cannot disprove the involvement of God. While there are many who misuse scientific evidence to replace traditional religions with atheism, this is an overt misunderstanding of science’s domain. This evolutionism is a religion; evolution is the incredibly strong scientific theory this religion abuses.
Another common misconception is that “evolution is still only a theory, and not yet a law.” In reality, a theory never becomes a law, because they describe different things: a law describes a trend, and gives a framework to make predictions, while a theory suggests a mechanism by which this trend exists. For example, Newton’s law of gravitation (the law of gravity) is:

F=G\frac{m_1m_2}{r^2}

Where F is the force between the two objects with masses m1 and m2; r is the distance between them, and G is the gravitational constant (). This applies to all objects in the universe (within the confines of the classical limit), can be used to model aspects of the cosmos, and has played a critical role in the discovery of planets and the mysterious “dark matter.” It is also extremely important for all sorts of engineering here on Earth, but actually does not work in some mathematically extreme situations. It also doesn’t explain how gravity works, which is the role of a theory. There are many theories that attempt to do this – including Newton’s own theory, Einstein’s general theory of relativity, and string theory – but these also break down under certain conditions. And there is another important point: not all theories and laws are perfect, and they don’t pretend to be. The scientific process is one of continuous refinement, where our understanding is honed closer to truth by each observation and experiment. Good science is directed by the realities of nature and not the preconceived conclusions of scientists.

The Theory of Evolution

Charles Darwin was an Anglican clergyman, and spent 5 years as the captain’s companion on The Beagle, which circumnavigated the globe and brought him through a tremendous variety of ecosystems. He spent much of his time collecting and cataloguing natural specimens, slowly discovering evidence for what he would eventually call natural selection. It was his collection from the Galápagos Islands that was the most defining.
There, he collected 13 distinct species of finches from the different islands in the archipelago. He observed that while all species maintained a clear similarity to each other and to the mainland American finches, each bird had traits specific to the conditions of its island – most strikingly, the birds had tremendously different beaks shapes that matched the food available on their respective islands.
Darwin noticed that in all species of animals (including humans), children are never identical to either of their parents. However, when individuals reproduce, each passes down some of its traits to the next generation; when individuals do not reproduce, their traits are not passed down.
In his finches, he noticed that beak shape drastically influenced the ability to reproduce, depending on what food was available. On islands where seeds were prevalent, powerful-jawed short-beaked finches were best able to survive and reproduce; on islands where cactus flowers were the primary food, long, thin-beaked finches were most successful. To describe this, he defined the word “fitness” to mean the success at passing down traits.
This definition of fitness is often confused, because it is used retrospectively and not predictively – that is, the individuals that reproduce are by definition the most fit, regardless of how “fit” they may seem in other situations. For example, the human disease sickle cell anemia is a recessive disorder that is fatal in those who have 2 copies of the defective gene. While the disease is rare in the global population, it is very common in much of Africa, where malaria is present. It turns out that the malarial parasite is unable to infect humans who have one copy of the defective gene; those that have 1 copy of the gene neither get malaria, nor sickle cell anemia. Even though the gene can be deadly, and may not initially seem to contribute towards fitness, these individuals are more successful at reproducing, and the gene is passed down. In malaria-infected areas, those with 1 sickle cell gene are the most fit; in other words, malaria naturally selects for the sickle cell gene.

The Mechanism of Evolution

In my experience, I have found that many Christians can accept the idea that small changes can occur within a species, such as color or beak shape, but reject the idea that a species can change so much that it becomes a different species. I hear statements like, “Sure, a wolf and dog may come from the same ancient species, but they’re still the same type. You don’t find a butterfly changing into an elephant!” And while they are right that butterflies don’t change into elephants, a general rejection of macroevolution (large scale evolution) almost always results from an insufficient understanding of biology.
Developmental biology is possibly the most compelling area of study with regard to evolution, as it actually describes the mechanisms that create large-scale changes. The appearance of limbs, stripes, and the eye are easier to explain than you might think!
It is commonly assumed that there are genes for each body part – that there is a specific set of genes that makes one finger, another set for arms, more for each tooth, and so on. This is actually not the case. In reality, the body reuses many of the same genes to create its incredible structure.
The human genome consists of 23 pairs of chromosomes – one from the mother, one from the father – that are made of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). The exact same genome is contained in the nucleus of every cell of the body except blood cells, and contains all the genes required to create the entire body. Genes do nothing on their own but consist of a string of chemical letters – A, T, C, and G – that form a amazingly complex code. When a gene is expressed, this sequence is copied (or transcribed) onto messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA) which uses the letters A, U, C, and G. The mRNA leaves the nucleus, and the code – which is arbitrary but identical in almost all living things, from bacteria to humans – is translated into a string of peptides by a ribosome. These peptide chains form the proteins that carry out all the functions of the body.
Even though these proteins are the literal building blocks of every body part, the genes which encode them make up only 1.5% of the human genome! Much of that other 98.5% is involved in regulating exactly when, where, and to what extent the genes are expressed. Parts of the genome that do this are called enhancer regions, and consist of many different, modular repeating sequences of DNA. Each of these sequences can bind to a specific transcription factor, which is a type of protein that, when bound to one of these sequences, either stimulates or represses expression of the sequence’s corresponding gene.
Because the enhancer regions of each gene contain these sequences in all sorts of combinations, the gene can be turned on and off in different cells, at different stages of development, depending on the concentrations of different transcription factors. This process sounds complicated at first, but is a remarkably simple way to organize the entire body!
This process is responsible for much of the swiftness and magnitude of evolution in complex creatures. If a mutation occurs in a gene itself, it’s likely to have detrimental effects in at least one of the places it is expressed. On the other hand, if a mutation occurs in the enhancer region, then what changes is when, where, and to what extent the still functional gene is expressed. In this way, different genes can easily be expressed in new places, without killing the organism. This process of gene reuse is called co-option, and is responsible for the quick emergence of new and vastly different traits.
Furthermore, chemical signals called morphogens govern which and how many transcription factors are produced and activated by a cell. Concentration gradients of these molecules form the different axes of the body – head to rear (anterior to posterior), front to back (ventral to dorsal), left to right, and from the body to limb extremity (proximal to distal). The combination and concentrations of morphogens outside the cell influence the transcription factors inside the cell, and ultimately direct what type of tissue that cell’s progeny will become.
This allows entire developmental processes to be “copied and pasted” and is responsible for enormous variation between closely related species, and even between members of the same species. For example, one single point mutation – the change of just one DNA letter to a different letter – in the enhancer region of a morphogen’s gene causes the condition polydactyly, where individuals have six fingers on each hand and foot. This occurs identically in mice and humans, and variations of this conditions exist in 1 of every 500 live human births.
Although Darwin had never heard of these precesses, and relied almost entirely on observation and comparative anatomy, his ideas have been supported again and again with each major biological advance. Most recently, the processes of development have shown just how easily and efficiently evolution can occur.

Big Questions

Interestingly, I’ve found that many of the questions evoked by an evolution-versus-scripture discussion are not evolution-centric at all, but issues with a Christian worldview. While the idea of evolution should require some reflection and the openness to worldview recalibration, truth should never be ignored for the sake of avoiding discomfort. I strongly believe that when understood in their proper contexts, the scientific theory of evolution and poetic narratives of Genesis are beautifully complementary.
Genesis chapter one describes our God as infinitely powerful, commanding light and life into existence! Chapter two expresses the intimate character of Yahweh, who delicately forms man from the clay, and breaths life into his nostrils. The natural world agrees: the dramatic nuclear processes of stars and incredible diversity of life declare God’s incomprehensible authority; the beautiful, intricate processes of development sing of His careful attention to detail. This idea is not foreign to scripture:

For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. (Romans 1:20, NIV, emphasis added)