About the origin of the Earth and the creatures that multiplied on it: a story of creation, destruction and regeneration.

1. Introduction

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. With these words a collection of books purporting to be the authorised account of God’s relationship with man answers the most fundamental of all questions: how the world came into existence. Initially, the universe was in darkness; there was neither starlight nor sunlight. The earth was enveloped in a mantle of water, formless and lifeless, and the Spirit of God hovered over the water. Then, over six days, he caused the revolving earth to be illuminated, he formed the sky, the land and the seas, he created animals to live in them, he caused the land to produce plants and trees, and he formed the sun, the moon and the planets. Finally, he created a being that would be like himself, as a son is like his father.

Hartland Quay, Devon, showing folding as landmasses crunched together in the Carboniferous period

Between then and now, numerous millennia after the Creation, the world has changed beyond all recognition. Weathering, erosion and plate tectonics have refashioned its topography. Entire mountain ranges have come and gone. The crust beneath the oceans has been replaced several times through spreading at mid-ocean ridges and subduction at continental margins, so that entire oceans have come and gone. Countless animals have been born into the world, and countless animals have died, each in their lifetime going through a cycle of morphological transformation from conception to adulthood. Countless human beings have died. If anything is obvious, it is that the world was not designed to be unchanging.

Or maybe this is not so obvious? Until three hundred years ago we knew next to nothing about the history of the earth. People supposed that the present seas, rivers and mountains, fauna and flora were little changed from those created at the beginning – that it might even be possible to locate the original Eden. The starting point for making sense of the past was Genesis, and the presumption was that Genesis described the coming into being of the world we know today. What had been was what would be. There was ‘nothing new under the sun’.

In the 19th century geologists began to understand how igneous rocks formed, they became proficient in unravelling the effects of folds and faults on stratigraphy, and they learned to date the rocks of one region in relation to those of another by correlating the fossils in them. Most organisms, it became clear, had sooner or later gone extinct and been replaced by new species; they were characteristic of definable periods. Whole groups of species had perished without successors. Further back in the stratigraphic record, there seemed to be a time when no life at all existed. So far as geology was concerned, it was not true that there was nothing under the sun.

Such revelations had a profound effect on the West’s understanding of the world, and people drew differing conclusions, the chief of which were these:

  1. Genesis 1 was not a true record of beginnings, and the way was therefore clear for alternative explanations to be explored.
  2. Although Genesis 1 described the coming into being of the ancestors of today’s fauna and flora, a world-wide flood, recorded in Genesis 9, subsequently destroyed the original land, and fossils were the remains of organisms that perished in the disaster.
  3. The six days of Genesis 1 were aeons, not literal days. Either the creation account was a simplified record of gradual evolution, with evolution the means by which God created, or it was an account of how species were separately created in the course of millions of years.

Although these continue to be the positions that define thinking on the earth’s history today, each has its shortcomings.

Those who abandoned Genesis altogether and argued that life had evolved into existence were able to draw some support from the fossil order. Marine invertebrates (molluscs, worms, extinct trilobites and so on) appeared before fish, fish before terrestrial animals, and terrestrial reptiles before terrestrial mammals, all within a general trend of fauna and flora becoming more modern in appearance (hence the division of the sequence into ‘Palaeozoic’, ‘Mesozoic’ and ‘Cenozoic’ – eras of ‘old life’, ‘middle life’ and ‘recent life’). However, there were other aspects of the record that made the interpretation difficult. Two of the most fundamental were the abrupt appearance of the invertebrates that started the whole sequence off and the lack of intermediates linking all Selenopeltis trilobites from Morocco, brittlestars in background categories of organism, from fungi to human beings, into one genealogical tree. It was therefore far from clear that the gross order in which fossils appeared supported an evolutionary interpretation. Recently, fish remains have been found that are almost as old as the oldest molluscs and worms.

Those who still maintained that fossils testified of a global flood advanced the weaknesses of the new position as corroboration of their own, but were unable to explain either the order in which fossils appeared (marine invertebrates first, mammals last) or the lower-level patterns which showed that some kind of evolution certainly had been going on. In their view Genesis 1 obliged them to believe that species were immutable, whatever the evidence might suggest, just as the genealogies in later chapters persuaded them that there had been no time for organisms to evolve. Scripture, they saw, was under attack. Any acceptance of evolution was tantamount to compromise and betrayal.

Also unsatisfactory was the proposal that the six days represented indefinite aeons. If there was a problem of reconciliation, simultaneously doing violence to the text and to geological history was no way to solve it. IThe text specifically defined a day as a cycle of dusk and dawn, and in reality the sun was not formed in the second half of earth history, long after plants and trees. To identify the events at creation with the sequence of cosmological, geological and biological events that made up all history was merely to demonstrate, on this premise, that the creation account was untrue.

In contemporary culture these positions are labelled evolutionist, creationist and theistic evolutionist. There is also a fourth called progressive creationism, referring to the idea that God created species separately over the aeons. On all sides of the debate, creation and fixity of form – minor variation of form around an unchanging mean – are considered to go hand in hand. The polemics are so fierce that protagonists have little interest in looking for common ground or considering whether their opponents might sometimes have a point. No one is minded to distinguish between evolution in the sense of species undergoing anatomical change – as they adapted to new environments – and evolution in the sense of organisms all descending from a common ancestor. Although such a distinction lies at the heart of the matter, increasing diversity and common descent are indiscriminately denoted by the same word, with evidence of the one being promoted as evidence of the other.

The theory of creation sketched out here seeks to escape this confusion in thought and terminology. It is not intended to be comprehensive, and it says little about the implications of creation for the significance of man. The main focus is on the question of how the universe and the life in it came into being. In academic institutions scientists theorise about origins on the assumption that everything came into being naturally, without considering what a non-naturalistic theory might entail. But – and this is especially true where so much is unknown and has to be either inferred or assumed – we can only assess the strength of a theory if we compare it against an alternative. A theory can only be said to explain the data well if it is better at explaining them than another and can withstand attempts to refute it. When we hear that ‘nothing makes sense except in the light of evolution’, that claim is a reflection of the fact that cosmologists, geologists and biologists have never sought to understand things in any other light. Before nailing their souls to a world-view based on the Big Bang, the solar nebula and the evolutionary ‘tree of life’, they ought to be asking how a theory of creation might approach the data – a coherent, up-to-date theory, not a caricature such as would hardly have passed muster even in the 19th century. Indeed, they should be researching such an approach themselves, not waiting for others outside academia to do it – outside, precisely because they have excluded them and banned such discussion of alternatives. With their professional training and knowledge, they are far more qualified to do so.

Without a theory of creation, it is impossible to know whether a discovery such as the existence of planets around other stars, the very process of star formation or the synthesis of new elements in stars, contradicts creation, supports it, or is simply neutral. A theory provides principles, distinct from ad hoc rationalisations.

The building blocks of the solar system

image from www.space-travel.comAt the risk of diving into unfamiliar waters too soon, let us consider an example of what a theory must be able to handle. The oldest datable objects in the solar system are a class of meteorite called carbonaceous chondrites. Apart from gases, the elements in the sun’s photosphere – the layer above its surface, providing spectral evidence of the composition of the interior – have abundances very similar to those of the chondrites, and this correspondence has been interpreted as indicating that the sun and the chondrites originated from the same raw material. So obvious does this interpretation seem that the sun is dated by reference to the chondrites. Since there is no way of determining the sun’s age directly, the ‘solar nebula hypothesis’ assumes that they are coeval. The hypothesis that the solar system originated naturally from a cloud of dust and gas rests on an assumption that in effect presupposes the hypothesis. However, some elements show a much less impressive degree of correspondence, and carbonaceous chondrites are not the only meteorites of this antiquity. Non-carbonaceous chondrites and non-chondritic meteorites also have to be fitted into the picture. On the other side of the equation, we have to bear in mind that the composition of the sun’s photosphere would have changed over time, as a result of the diffusion and convection processes going on in its interior. Thus, the idea that the sun and chondrites have a common natural origin requires various secondary assumptions, and the exercise becomes one of developing and refining the hypothesis rather than of testing it. It becomes an exercise in showing that the solar system might have had a natural origin rather than that it did, with the corollary that problems in establishing the plausibility of the hypothesis are potential evidence that the hypothesis is wrong.

What, then, might be an alternative explanation of the correspondence in element abundances? In fact there is a quite obvious alternative, for we already know that not all the constituents of the meteorites could have originated in the primeval nebula. Some of the constituents, it seems, must have originated in a nearby supernova: the final stage in the life-cycle of a massive (and therefore short-lived) star when the star heats up to extreme temperatures and explodes. A great range of elements are forged in supernovas, including some that do not ordinarily occur in nature. Some of these are unstable and rapidly decay into equally distinctive lighter elements, so the incorporation of these decay products in the meteorites suggests (though we will in fact propose another explanation) that a supernova occurred within striking distance of the solar system not long before the meteorite’s parent body formed. In the nebula hypothesis the occurrence of so rare an event so soon after the sun formed is put down to coincidence. But what if most of the elements in the sun did not come from the hypothesised nebula but from this supernova – the more parsimonious explanation? In that case at least some of the meteorites might have condensed from a cloud of elements unconnected with the formation of the sun, while the sun would have had a similar composition as a result of itself absorbing a proportion of the elements. The link between the age of the sun and the age of the meteorites would be broken.

Can Genesis withstand interrogation?

Creation may seem a simple idea, but in reality – as even the foregoing comments show – it is not at all simple. What is implicit in the concept needs unpacking. Creation can only provide a viable theory for scientific inquiry (and, within a society that seeks to ridicule the possibility, a basis for understanding life generally) if we are clear about what it does and does not mean, or does not necessarily mean. With the solitary exception of the work of Walter ReMine, who in 1993 published a theory of creation entitled The Biotic Message, no such examination has ever been attempted.

ReMine contended that life was designed to look like the product of a single designer and resist all other explanations. This was, and remains, a pregnant idea. Simple though the formulation is, it shows how the data may point in a direction quite different from that which is usually supposed, and anyone accustomed to assuming that there is no alternative to godless or deistic Darwinism might do well to experiment with it. Much of the book is a trenchant, often belligerent, critique of evolution theory, and ReMine makes his case, as he more or less had to do, without reference to the Bible. Furthermore, he makes no attempt to challenge the idea that the earth is billions of years old. In other respects the thinking is recognisably creationist. We are still stuck within the familiar creation/evolution antithesis that equates creation with fixity of form and portrays evolution as merely ‘variation’ around that form – the antithesis that keeps Darwinism afloat. There is no consideration of the possibility that a designed thing might change over time. The evidence for evolutionary lineages in the fossil record is accordingly denied, for fear that acknowledging it would be to concede common descent across the board.

The present discussion does make reference to the Genesis account. The purpose here is to consider the implications of the Creation as a particular historical event, on the premise that Genesis is the divinely authorised account of what happened. If it is not, then of course the discussion will be built on sand, and well informed science will show up its inadequacies. The premise may therefore prove unfounded. But we adopt it in order to test it, in a limited way: to explore the possibility that, despite its antiquity, Genesis can still contribute significantly to a modern understanding of how the world came to be. Exploring and testing that possibility requires that we work with science, not against it. Sound scientific knowledge can, and must, inform our understanding of the text. It is basic that we have some confidence that the world we are trying to interpret will be concordant – fully concordant – with the text we are trying to interpret.



This page was last modified: 26th January 2013