Reports of the National Center for Science Education

Review: God and Evolution

God and Evolution: Creation, Evolution and the Bible
RJ Berry
Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 2001. 189 pages.
Reviewed by
Keith B Miller, Kansas State University
There is no reason why any thoughtful, religious man should fear evolution, evolution is not an attempt to get rid of God in nature, but an attempt to show how God acts in nature. — SC Schmucker, in an address to the Pennsylvania State Education Association, December 28, 1927 (Anonymous 2003).
In essence, this book is a modern restatement of the position articulated above. RJ Berry is a British evangelical Christian and Professor of Genetics at the University College of London. Berry has a solid grasp of the wide range of evidence that undergirds evolutionary theory, as well as a well-reasoned orthodox Christian theology. God and Evolution was originally written in 1988 in response to the growing "creation science" movement. It was written for the evangelical Christian community and seeks to address the specific concerns of that faith community.

The preface of the book makes passing reference to advances in molecular biology and paleontology since the book was originally published. It also briefly mentions the claims of "intelligent design" advocates and cites critiques by Robert Pennock, Kenneth Miller, Denis Lamoureux, and others. It references a few of the many helpful works by evangelical scientists now available. However, given the recent developments in anti-evolutionary arguments and the many recent works by both scientists and theologians at the interface of religious thought and evolutionary theory, it is disappointing that this is a reprint and not a revised book.

In this small book, Berry attempts to address many of the fundamental issues involved in the popular science/faith discussion of evolution. Individual chapters are devoted to the nature of scientific description, the basics of evolutionary theory, the interpretation of the Bible, relevant doctrinal questions such as the nature of humanity and the origin of sin, an evaluation of "creation science", and a final plea for integration of theological and scientific perspectives.

Berry begins with a critique of "nothing buttery" (a term coined by British neuroscientist Donald MacKay to describe a thoroughgoing reductionism), and a discussion of the idea of multiple internally complete descriptions and multiple types of causation. He stresses that questions exist whose answers lie outside of any conceivable scientific investigation. He thus forcefully argues against a "warfare metaphor" to describe the relationship of evolutionary science and the Christian faith, and presents biological evolution and divine creation as complementary explanations.

In his chapter "The idea of evolution", he gives a very brief overview of the history of ideas about organic change from Plato to the Origin. He summarizes the essential elements of Darwin's ideas and the objections raised by Darwin's contemporaries. These objections are countered by the arguments used by Darwin himself, as well as by reference to more modern research. An important omission in this review is a discussion of the history of discovery and interpretation of the fossil record. Given that the fossil record is a common target of anti-evolutionary arguments, this omission is unfortunate. (A clear and entertaining description of how the rock and fossil records were constructed is given in the excellent book The Meaning of Fossils by MJS Rudwick [1976].)

In another chapter, Berry covers the subsequent history of evolutionary thought from Darwin through the neo-Darwinian synthesis of the 1940s and up to the advent of punctuated equilibria and cladistics in the 1970s. In recounting these developments, Berry does a good job of giving a sense of the internal debates within evolutionary science. In the process, he shows it to be a dynamic and maturing science involving a wide range of disciplines. Berry writes:
It is this unifying element which apparently makes evolution into something more than a simple scientific theory, and allows such diverse topics as fossil sequences, gene frequency changes and polymorphism, extinctions, adaptation, and so on, to be brought within a single umbrella. There may be disagreement about the interaction or relative importance of particular mechanisms, but there is no viable scientific alternative to Darwinian evolution for understanding nature (p 87–8).
This perspective helps to counter the common anti-evolutionary arguments that see every legitimate scientific dispute as a refutation of evolution.

In two chapters, Berry addresses concerns about the interpretation of Bible texts and specific doctrinal issues. He repeats the nearly universal theological understanding that the creation narratives in Genesis 1–3 must not be read as scientific accounts. They are theodicy, "stating and justifying God's goodness in an evil world" (p 47). He accepts the literary framework interpretation of the Genesis passages as proposed by leading evangelical theologians (such as Blocher 1984). Berry effectively argues that the Bible does not support the view that God's creative activity implies the absence of known or knowable mechanisms. He states, "the most persistent misapprehension about God and creation, however, is that knowledge of causal mechanism automatically excludes any possibility that God is acting in a particular situation" (p 51). The assumption that if evolution is true then God cannot be creator is "nonsense".

As to the origin of humanity, Berry argues that human distinctiveness is spiritual and relational, not anatomical. The "image of God" is not the same as physical form, nor can it be tied to particular mental capacities possessed uniquely by humans. Our creation in the "image of God" is thus not in conflict with an evolutionary origin. Unfortunately, in this discussion, Berry does not convey any real feeling for the abundance and complexity of the human and hominid fossil records.

Probably one of the most critical theological issues is that of the Fall. Particular understandings of this doctrine lie at the foundation of much of the popular resistance to evolutionary science. Referring to evangelical theological scholarship, Berry argues that the death that came into the world at the Fall was spiritual death, not physical death. That death was not determined or spread by some type of genetic inheritance. Adam thus need not have been the physical ancestor of all humanity, but can be understood as humanity's federal head with whom we are united in our sin. The broken relationships among humans, God, and nature resulting from that sin have brought discord to the rest of nature. In this view, the long historical record of human-induced environmental degradation can be understood as our failure to act as nature's appointed stewards and caretakers. Articulated within a thoroughly orthodox Christian theology, such views are critical for demonstrating that, far from undermining traditional doctrines, an evolutionary perspective can give them renewed relevance.

Berry concludes the book with two chapters on "creation science". In the first of these, he rebuts several of the standard young-earth creationist claims and responds to a few of the arguments made against macroevolution. This is one of the weaker chapters in the book, and readers should look to other sources for much more thorough and up-to-date responses to "creation science" arguments. However, the author does make the useful observation that "Many of the questions in the evolution and Christianity debate only arise because they wrongly assume some basic premise: time and time again it is worth probing behind the question to find if it is worth asking …" (p 103).

His chapter "Whence 'creationism'?" is arguably the most important in the book because it directly confronts the false science/faith warfare metaphor. He presents a history of the theological response to Darwin, beginning with Charles Hodge, who saw "Darwinism" as denying divine agency, and James McCosh, who saw it as part of divine providence. This historical discussion includes the beginning of the fundamentalist movement in which important figures such as James Orr, George Wright, and BB Warfield saw no inherent conflict between orthodox Christian faith, with a high view of scripture, and evolution. Berry also covers social Darwinism, the rise of populist anti-evolutionism in the early 1900s, and the birth of modern "scientific creationism" in the 1960s. He concludes this historical survey with the diagnosis that "… the mainspring of American 'creationism' is a simple fear of change; a fear that challenge to the accepted framework of belief will irreparably damage that belief, never mind opening a Pandora's Box of uncontrolled social and behavioural consequences" (p 147).

It is books such as Berry's that demonstrate the degree to which that fear is unwarranted. I highly recommend God and Evolution, especially for those who feel caught between their faith and modern evolutionary understandings of our world.

This version might differ slightly from the print publication.