In the first of our occasional series of perspectives on the creation/evolution controversy, Abigail Motley reflects on the growing harmony between her faith and her ecological research.
'Nothing makes sense in biology except in the light of evolution.' Undergraduate biology lecturers love referring to this quote, the title of an essay written by Theodosius Dobzhansky in 1973. Personally, I am always moved that it was proposed by a Christian.
I am an evolutionary biologist and ecologist, studying for a DPhil in Oxford. I’m also a Christian. I have loved nature for as long as I can remember (as a child, my bedroom was littered with jars of creepy crawlies, collections of sea shells, and I saw no reason why the family guinea pigs couldn’t take part in my annual nativity plays). Growing up, I saw my passion for the natural world as a gift God had given me to try and address the exploitative behaviour of humanity towards the life on earth. However, as I plunged deeper into my Oxford biology degree, I increasingly felt like I had to choose between biology and faith. For some time, I chose biology.
By God’s grace, in the last year I accepted Jesus and moved to the evangelical Protestant tradition. In doing so, I have been astounded by the distrust and even animosity with which my discipline is received amongst some evangelical Christians. Concomitantly, I am still confronted by the staunch atheism of some scientists, including colleagues. Often when teaching biology undergraduates, I hear the argument “evolution helped us disprove there was a creator” (they’re always slightly taken aback when I challenge them on this!). Despite this, I believe God has placed me in this position for a reason.
However, I am not always strong in this conviction. Am I just blindly ignoring what God teaches us in the Bible and rebelling against Him? Something I have found incredibly helpful is Dennis Alexander's suggestion of looking at creation through two lenses: God’s Word and God’s Works. Science should never be superimposed upon the Bible. Doing so risks concocting “God of the Gaps” arguments that may become nullified as science progresses. The Bible teaches us theology and how we should treat other human beings and God’s creation. Unsurprisingly, the Bible does not give scientific details about the makings of the universe. However, God gifted Homo sapiens unique abilities – consciousness, free will, moral law, and language – that allow us to know Him and, through cumulative advances, understand his creation through science.
In a recent conversation with Dr Bethany Sollereder, a specialist in the theology of evolution and suffering, I came to realise that even young earth creationists will accept certain scientific views. She pointed out that many creationists will accept heliocentricity, that the earth and planets orbit around the Sun, and yet this is not the picture by which Genesis is written. Accepting heliocentricity means accepting a scientific theory to explain God’s creation.
I find this incredibly reassuring. Some in the church were (understandably) hostile when Galileo proposed heliocentricity, and yet now it is widely accepted. When Darwin published the Origin of Species, much of the clergy in the Church of England eagerly accepted his theory of natural selection. They recognised that science does not have to undermine faith, but rather, can truly enhance it. What greater privilege is there than understanding just a small part of our Creator’s great works in all their glory?
Granted, there is still debate in biology as to the exact nature of evolutionary theory. Certain parts of On the Origin of Species are incorrect (as are certain parts of Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene). Biology is an intrinsically uncertain science, simply because ecological and evolutionary systems are so complex. However, the nature of science is such that a theory can’t garner such strong academic support unless there is a wealth of peer-reviewed scientific data behind it. Dobzhansky was right: evolution is currently our only credible explanation for the sheer diversity of life on earth.
A knowledge of biology has deepened my faith in a way I couldn’t have imagined possible. God is not absent from science – He is at the centre of it. Evolution is a natural process that, along with all natural processes, was created by Him. Studying just a tiny part of that creation is an incredible privilege that I give thanks for every day.
Abigail Motley is a DPhil student in Plant Ecology and Evolution at the University of Oxford. She is a regular member of St Ebbe's Church and on the 2017-18 cohort of Christians in Academia.