Putting creation myths up against real science

JamesKnight300Those who wish to put creation myths up against real science are making a mistake, argues James Knight, in his latest Network Norfolk column.

Every civilisation has its own creation myths - the Christians have Genesis, but look around the world and you'll see a different variation of human creation from the divine powers - the other monotheistic religions are at variance with Genesis. The Hindus have their own mythical creation account, the aboriginals' myth differ from those of the Orientals, the Eastern Africans myths differ from those of the Western Africans, and so forth. 
A fairly obvious corollary follows.  If you come from India you will likely subscribe to a different creation myth than a man from Thailand; if you come from Zambia you will likely subscribe to a different creation myth than an aboriginal from Australia.  Quite naturally, the myth that is true to you will be the one to which your culture most heavily leans.  These are the mythical accounts - but first off, notice I said 'mythical', I didn't say 'untrue'. 
Now, let's take the scientific account of how all living organisms came about - through abiogenesis, and through evolution by natural selection. Here the picture would be different to the one above; if you were to ask a biologist or anthropologist in any one of those countries above, he would have more or less the same view of abiogenesis and evolution by natural selection as you do. 
Because evolution is true in the sense of being empirically and factually true, its truth looks the same from wherever one is in the world.  That is to say, the history of abiogenesis and the common ancestry that has seen life spread throughout the globe is the same truth for everyone.  And unlike the culturally relative revelations behind the nuanced creation myths, scientists around the world who are studying and testing life on this planet will reach more or less the same conclusions, whether they are in Canada, Chile or China. 
Those who wish to put the creation myths up against real science are making a mistake, and here's why.  The creation myths are telling a truth, but a different kind of truth to the kind of empirical truths we can test in the lab or out in the wild. The truths of the creation myths are truths about mankind's propensity for broad imagination, and expressions of a deep longing that is never quite made manifest in the empirical studies of man.  One may very well refer to it as a hunger for God, or a tapping into the hope that a powerful, transcendent God would come into intimate contact with mankind - perhaps even to repair the damages made by mankind's badness and irresponsibility.  
AtomNo one, in my opinion, has covered the 'myth' subject better than C.S Lewis - myths and mediaeval literature are his specialist subjects, and in his essay "Myth Became Fact" from the larger body of work called God in the Dock, Lewis has a wonderful passage:
"Now as myth transcends thought, Incarnation transcends myth. The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens - at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We pass from a Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical Person crucified (it is all in order) under Pontius Pilate. By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle."
This has long been one of the best responses to the charge that Christianity is merely another version of the ancient Eastern, Babylonian, Persian, Roman, Greek and Egyptian myths.  What C.S Lewis is saying is that Christianity is the fulfillment of all previous mythological religions. Yes, it is a myth, but it is a myth that is also a fact.
"Myth in general is . . . at its best, a real though unfocused gleam of Divine truth falling on human imagination."
It is quite a bold way of thinking - that all of mankind's religious and philosophical precipitations have interrelation with the truth of the Incarnation, and that myths aren’t rivals to facts, but instead truths that underwrite the whole of creation.
Obviously this is not the sort of fact that can be tested in the way that empirical science is tested, but that is not the point.  The really profound truth is this; there is a clear reason why so many independent cultures came up with their own creation stories – it is because we are primed to assent towards these powerful narratives that underwrite the human story; Divinity, incarnation, birth, justice, mercy, love, grace, redemption, death, resurrection, re-birth – they inhabit so much of our imaginative thinking, and they are so much a preoccupation in our deepest longings, it is no surprise that so many have thought them to be at the very centre of what the story of mankind has been about all along. 
Try not to catch yourself thinking that Biblical myths are to be confused with legends or fairy stories or, worse, falsehoods – that is not what myths are; they are extra-worldly or metaphysical or divine truths told in worldly form.  That is why all the great writers and storytellers and mythmakers never stray very far from the Christian truths.

or God. 


The views carried here are those of the author, not of Network Norwich and Norfolk, and are intended to stimulate constructive debate between website users. We welcome your thoughts and comments, posted below, upon the ideas expressed here. You can also contact the author direct at james.knight@norfolk.gov.uk  

James is a Christian writer and local government officer based in Norwich. 
You can access his current collections of columns here 

Meanwhile, if you want to find out more about Christianity, visit: www.rejesus.co.uk

Clifford Denton 08/03/2012 13:55
I hope that there will be enough negative response to James Knight's article, on what he sees as creation myths versus science, to convince him that he is wrong. It is of great concern to me to see this article on the Network Norwich website. There is not space here for a full appraisal of the article. Let me just quote one sentence: "Because evolution is true in the sense of being empirically and factually true, its truth looks the same from wherever one is in the world." How can evolution be deemed as empirically and factually true? It is neither. It is simply an unbiblical theory. No honest science can deduce that such a theory is true. Honest science deals in such things as hypothesis, observation, evidence, measurement, prediction, never proof. Philosophers know the limitations of their theories and good scientists do too. I can only conclude that the author of this article has been beguiled and that he does not know the principles on which scientific method depends, while also having drifted from the faith in this area. It might seem like a revelation to consider how people from different religions can be brought together on such common ground, but what next I wonder before the cutting edge of biblical truth and indeed the Gospel is compromised more fully.
Andrew Holland 08/03/2012 13:56
Hi James
Here we go again with your creation-bashing nonsense. Of course there are many myths around the world about how the world came into being, but those of us who are sincere Christians believe the Bible is the word of God and is eternal truth. Most of the other theories are derivatives of the original biblical account, distorted and elaborated over many centuries.
I still find your statements about "evolution being empirically and factually true" is a nonsense in itself because evolution is a hypothesis which has never been proven, and as scientific knowledge increases it becomes more obvious that it is not true. Abiogenesis itself has never been observed and therefore cannot be a scientific fact, but is part of the aforementioned hypothesis.
By the way, James, you have not responded to the challenge I sent you some time ago, namely, to explain how a sperm whale evolved all its amazing features. I look forward to hearing from you on that. Also in a earlier correspondence I asked you what drove evolution, and you said gravity and thermodynamics. How on earth could gravity drive evolution? And any study of thermodynamics will show you that evolution is not possible.

Barrie Lawrence 08/03/2012 14:28
Oh dear oh dear, here we go again.

Clifford - nothing will convince James that he is wrong; only the Holy Spirit, and He has chosen not to, or James is resisting.

James' article seems to be something of a rerun of a series he wrote last year. Having read the second paragraph carefully, I think James must come from India, Thailand, Zambia or Australia - or Never-Never Land.

Barrie Lawrence

P.S. I'm sure James is a very nice young man really!
Arv Edgeworth 09/03/2012 13:00
If a supernatural God exists, the only way we would know that would be if He chose to reveal Himself to us. Many would not deny this as proper logic, they would just choose to believe that He has not chosen to do so.

In the field of science, all evidence has to be interpreted. Facts have no meaning in and of themselves, they have to be interpreted to have any meaning at all. Similarities in DNA between life forms can be interpreted as having a common ancestor, or a common designer. This is also necessary in order to have a food chain, which would also seem to indicate a common designer.

Real science is neutral towards the supernatural, not anti. Whenever facts are interpreted in such a manner as to disprove a designer, they are operating according to their philosophical belief system, not according to science.
Robert 10/03/2012 04:45
I am not happy with the manner in which James Knight has presented hiis views.Without being too citical, I would like to make the following observations.
1. The Bible,from Genesis to Revelation, is primarily concerned with the Creator,His creation and and recreation of human beings, and how He is bringing this about.When God became Man in Jesus Christ, and accomplished a great work of cosmic significance for all mankind, He followed a 'well-defined procedure', encapsulated largely in parabolic form in the Pentateuch, Psalms,and the Prophets.These books were written for all time, but initially for the people of the day, in a form they could apprehend with the Lord's help.When God became Incarnate, it is stated in John chapter1,that the Word became flesh etc.This chapter is heavily loaded with symbolism, and it took me over 40years to begin to apprehend it, properly.
2. Likewise, the first eleven chapters of Genesis are heavily loaded with symbolism, not unlike the book of Revelation.It is very unwise to apprehend the symbolic representations of Revelation in a literal manner.I have studied, and still studying, the Upanishads, the Koran, books on Buddhism, and few other religions carefully, but haven't come across anything remotely comparable with what I have outlined under 1 and 2.
3. Before we can come to terms with the concepts of creation and evolution, it is useful and wise to reflect on what is required to bring into being even a single 'unicellular' organism,for e.g.a bacterium, in the light of modern science.(a)First, the various component elements H,C,N,O,phosphorus etc have to be 'created'.These elements can only be formed in certain stars,which have the required sub-atomic particles,right temperature,etc. Even then the required resonance energies between some of the sub-atomic particles, convinced an agnostic/atheist like Fred Hoyle(who first formulated the mechanisms for the formation of elements in the stars)that there must be a great Mind behind the processes.(b)Having got the elements, the formation of the simple,well-defined, compounds like L-amino acids, D-sugars,etc., is not an easy matter.From the simple compounds, formation of complex molecules associated with life-processes is another matter.For e.g.the formation of dense information-containing DNA is mind bogglingly complex.These processes require a Mind with considerable wisdom and understanding.(c) From(b), the formation of the required organelles of the constituent cells of higher organisms is another feat.
As far as I am aware, science hasn't still adequately explained a,b,and c, without invoking a great Mind behind the processes.(d)More importantly, science cannot explain how a 'living cell', even a bacterium,
could be formed from such complex associations in a cell.For this a Living Creator is required.
Having got thus far, how living organisms adapt themselves to meet the requirements of the various environments is another matter.Mind yu,here the required information has to be expressed from within the organism, via the genome, and associated DNA,genes etc.
Surely, a wise Creator is not going to explain these processes in His Word to people who lived well before 2000BC,who had no knowledge of modern science.He has to use parabolic and symbolic forms, and various representative types, to get across a message of supreme significance to drive home the meaning and purpose of creation. This requires not only the creation of man, but the recreation of fallen man.To accomplish these processes effectively, God through His Son, initially became a single living cell, uniquely created by Him.For me, words fail to describe the condescension and humility of God and His unfathomable ways.
If anyreader likes to read my views on 'The unique Divinity of Jesus Christ ...', which touches on some of the points outlined above, please type my name Robert R Selvendran on Google and then Search,and read the above article.At the end of the article, there is a little write-up about myself. Thank you.
James Knight 10/03/2012 11:41
Robert begins with the terse “I am not happy with the manner in which James Knight has presented his views” but then goes on to say nothing that expresses even the slightest discordance against my article – which, by the way, is not an evolution vs. creation article; it is an article that supports the idea that myths and science are both true and complementary.

In actual fact Robert seems to agree when he says:

“Surely, a wise Creator is not going to explain these processes in His Word to people who lived well before 2000BC,who had no knowledge of modern science.He has to use parabolic and symbolic forms, and various representative types, to get across a message of supreme significance to drive home the meaning and purpose of creation.”

Exactly – yes, that is the point – and precisely why our creationist brothers above are in error by looking for scientific truths in scripture, rather than seeing (as most Christians do) Christianity and science as two separate, yet not mutually exclusive, truths about creation.

Robert then goes on to contradict himself when he says :

“As far as I am aware, science hasn't still adequately explained a,b,and c, without invoking a great Mind behind the processes.(d)More importantly, science cannot explain how a 'living cell', even a bacterium,
could be formed from such complex associations in a cell. For this a Living Creator is required.”

Having done well in stating that science and religion are expressing truths in a different way and with different descriptive terms, you trip yourself up by trying to conflate scientific explanations with religious ones. You and I both agree that a Divine genius is behind the creation – but you’re misjudging the descriptive heuristics found in science by saying things like the complexity of living cells require an observable signature from God. This distorts both science and Christianity, because science is only looking to describe how things work, and why things happen – it is (or should be) fairly agnostic on the issue of whether there is a divine creator.

The way science deals with origin of life is in terms of joining the dots. The first branch in the tree of life is between the two great groups of simple cells, bacteria and archaea. Both of these groups have proton pumps and both generate ATP from proton currents, using a similar protein. So it seems very likely that both inherited this machinery from a common ancestor, and that this source was the progenitor of all life on earth, including you, me and the oak tree down the road. That said, although traits found in both the archaea and bacteria are most likely inherited from the common ancestor of all life, a few must have been acquired later by gene exchange, thus giving credence to our belief that ‘distinct’ means in many cases ‘evolved independently’. We know that this common ancestor possessed DNA, RNA and proteins, a universal genetic code, ribosomes (which are protein-building mechanisms), ATP and a proton-powered enzyme for making ATP. Some IDists contest with the (what I believe to be mistaken) view that the detailed mechanisms for reading off DNA and converting genes into proteins could not have been in place at that time, but given that this structure was, as far as we know, rather like a modern cell, I think they are clutching at a very thin straw. Yet there are nuanced differences as well - in particular, the detailed mechanics of DNA replication would have been quite different. Moreover, it looks as if DNA replication evolved independently in bacteria and archaea; that is, most scientists seem to agree that the defining boundaries of cells evolved independently in bacteria and archaea.

So the question ‘what sort of a cell was this common ancestor?’ is a difficult question, but not an impossible one. Clearly not a cell with no boundaries, that would defy every known chemical law – but seemingly it was a very simple yet sophisticated entity in terms of its genes and proteins, and was powered by proton currents rather than fermentation, but with membranes that are no longer seen in cells today. To compound the point, back then the oceans were very different to what they are now; the primordial oceans were saturated with carbon dioxide, making them acidic, whereas the seas today have more alkaline. Also there was practically no oxygen, and without oxygen, iron dissolves readily – and we can see from our geological studies that the vast banded-iron formations around the world are a result of iron that once dissolved in oceans. As oxygen levels slowly rose, billions of tonnes of iron precipitated out as rust. This almost certainly means that the interface between the alkaline vents and the primordial seas would have been much more conducive to biochemistry than they are today – in fact scientists have found ancient vents with a similar structure and even reproduced them in the lab.

So the theory that ancient alkaline hydrothermal vents were the incubators for life looks very plausible, particularly if hydrogen and carbon dioxide did in fact react in those vents to form simple organic molecules and also release energy. But I see a problem. hydrogen with carbon dioxide may well be central to life, but energy is required in the first place to engender this process, so much so that it is probably nigh-on impossible for bacteria to grow by chemistry alone without the catalysing energy. Let me offer an analogy. Think of the energy stored by ATP as equivalent to £1. If it takes £1 to kick-start a reaction, which then releases £2, in theory a cell has gained £1. However, if the only way a cell has to store energy is to make ATP, it can make only one molecule; to make two new ATPs would cost £2. So one ATP would have been spent to gain one ATP, and the spare change wasted as heat. That's not consistent with being alive. You see, the fluid from the vents would have contained very reactive molecules such as methyl sulphide, which would generate acetyl phosphate. Acetyl phosphate is a molecule that some bacteria today still use interchangeably with ATP. Moreover, the natural proton gradient would have supplemented the aforementioned energy source by spontaneously generating yet another primitive form of ATP called pyrophosphate. Pyrophosphate is different from phosphate, but is similar too in that it also acts in much the same way as ATP and is still used along with ATP by multitudes of bacteria and archaea. Pyrophosphatase is basically an enzyme that speeds up bacteria production.

So, Robert, even with that straightforward explanation we can see that the common ancestor of life could harness the natural proton gradient of ancient vents to produce energy, and by some reversing process store energy too, as this system seems to allow cells to save up small amounts of energy, much the same as we save up our loose change and buy something so it no longer becomes waste, which is equivalent to saying that the proton gradients enable cells to grow and then, by their accumulative energy, leave the vents. This means it may well be true that the last common ancestor of all life was not a frivolously spending cell at all, but a thrifty rock riddled with bubbly iron-sulphur membranes that engendered the energy for primordial biochemical reactions. This natural flow reactor, power-driven by hydrogen and proton gradients, catalysed organic chemicals and brought about proto-life (both bacteria and the archaea) that would become the first living cells – eventually producing you Robert, me and the oak tree.

Andrew Holland – you emailed me to say you hadn’t received the response I sent you – re the sperm whale – and I emailed you a second copy, so you’ve had it twice now.

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