Book review: Creation or Evolution: Do We Have to Choose?

Emma Nicholls 19 Mar 20

Creation or evolution: do we have to choose? The title of Denis Alexander’s book reflects a tension felt by many Christian students starting out in science. At church on Sunday night, Romans chapter 5 is open in front of you as the pastor explains how death entered the world through Adam. Just a few hours later in your Monday 9am, you’re listening to a lecturer walk through millions of years of animal and human death as they describe the evolutionary process that resulted in modern humans. It can feel like you’re constantly jumping through a portal between two totally different worlds. In one, the designing hand of the Creator God infuses nature with meaning and wonder; in the other, everything can be mechanistically explained by cold hard science. Is it sustainable to keep up this philosophical dimension-hopping, or will we eventually have to choose?

In Creation or Evolution the author makes it his mission to show that even in the hotly debated area of human origins, this apparent divergence of worlds is a false dichotomy . According to Alexander, there is no need to choose between holding to a biblical doctrine of creation and accepting the theory of evolution. Rather, both can contribute different levels of explanation to a complete, Christ-centred view of the world.

All Christians are creationists

“All Christians are, by definition, creationists.” (p15) By opening his first chapter with these provocative words, Alexander shows that he’s in no way afraid of controversy! What he means, of course, is not that only those who hold to a doctrine of six-day creation are true believers, but that all Christians believe in a Creator. In the opening chapters he helpfully lays out a theology of creation that encompasses not just God’s initial act of bringing the universe into being, but his continual creative and sustaining force in the world. He exposes an unhelpful distinction that Christians are prone to making between the work of God and acts of nature; rather, quoting Augustine, “Nature is what God does.”(p33)

Evidence for evolution

The next three chapters go into significant detail on the scientific evidence supporting the theory of evolution, drawing on the fields of geology, genetics and population biology. Alexander is well-qualified to write on such topics, having spent 40 years as an active member of the biological research community and served as Director of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion. His treatment of the evidence is thorough, and may prove hard-going for readers lacking qualifications in biology beyond GCSE level. But even ifn biology isn’t your thing, persevering is worth it – there are few places where you’ll find the scientific case for evolution put so thoroughly yet clearlysuccinctly. Biology students will notice that having been published in 2008, the book lacks the most up-to-date research, but this doesn’t significantly detract from the arguments being made.  A more notable omission is the lack of any evidence opposing Alexander’s preferred theory: whether this is due to selective inclusion of data or a real reflection of the weight of evidence may require further investigation on the part of the reader.

After tackling the scientific data, Alexander moves to theology. His analysis of Genesis 1 and 2 is swift but informed, demonstrating a strong understanding of Hebrew words and their uses and the cultural context into which Genesis was written.  He makes clear throughout that he is absolutely committed to the concept of biblical authority, and refers back to early commentators such as Augustine and Origen to support his interpretation of these chapters as primarily teaching theology, rather than scientific history in a literalistic sense. One particularly interestingespecially helpful point he makes is that all Christians interpret at least some parts of Genesis figuratively. For example,  – when the serpent is cursed to eat dust all the days of its life, no one imagines that the snake literally ate nothing but rocks from then on.  This observation helpfully adds a layer of nuance to our understanding of Genesis, showing that the process of interpreting these chapters is more than a black-and-white choice between a literal and a figurative reading.

Evolutionary creationism

In the second half of the book, Alexander sets out his preferred model for relating evolutionary science and theology, a position which he terms ‘evolutionary creationism’. The evolutionary creationist is one who has “baptised evolution into [their] Christian worldview”, having “fully accepted the authority of Scripture and the biblical doctrine of creation, but trac[ing] God’s providential purposes and handiwork throughout the long evolutionary process”(p181). In taking this view Alexander sees himself as part of a long tradition of Bible-believing Christians who have welcomed Darwin’s ideas.

A key theme here is the separation of the scientific theory of evolution from the atheistic worldview which has attempted to co-opt evolution for its own purposes. In the hands of atheist philosophers, the author argues, Darwinism has undergone an ‘ideological transformation’ from an innocent theory that presupposed no particular worldview to a weapon used to wage war on theism. It’s not only atheists that have bought into this idea. Many Christians consider evolution and naturalism to be inextricably entwined. But according to Alexander, it doesn’t have to be this way: by reclaiming evolution from naturalism, we strike a serious blow against those who would seek to discredit the gospel.

The next few chapters unpack what evolutionary creationism means for a range of subjects, including the identity of Adam and Eve, the nature of the Fall and the purpose of suffering. Alexander sets out various different models for relating scientific and biblical narratives, and suggests his own preferred view on each. Many readers will be left with more questions than answers here, but it provides a helpful launchpad for further reading.

Designed or evolved?

Finally, the book takes on the controversial topic of design in nature. Whilst not denying that God is a good designer, Alexander is highly critical of the Intelligent Design movement, which attempts to prove the existence of a designer behind the universe based on the supposed phenomenon of ‘irreducible complexity’, the idea that structures like the multi-component bacterial flagellum are too complex to have arisen by evolution alone. In Alexander’s view, this approach is nothing more than a thinly veiled ‘God-of-the-gaps’ philosophy, where purported evidence for a designer will gradually diminish as evolutionary mechanisms for so-called ‘irreducibly complex’ structures are found. Instead, throughout the book he promotes a ‘both/and’ rather than an ‘either/or’ view of evolution and design, seeing each part of a living organism as at the same time both a product of natural selection and supernaturally designed by God.

Taking science seriously, taking the Bible seriously

Overall, I was really impressed by both the scientific and theological rigour of this book. There are two questions I often ask when assessing material to use in the Science Network: ‘Does this take science seriously?’ and ‘Does this take the Bible seriously? ’ In the case of Creation or Evolution, the answer to both of these is a resounding yes. Authors who write with equal precision on both science and theology are rare, and Denis Alexander is one such rarity. Denis himself is perhaps the most powerful argument that it is possible to be both a serious scientist who passionately believes in the authority of the Bible, and a gospel Christian who is fully committed to evolutionary theory.

Not everyone will agree with the ideas set forth in this book. In fact, many will disagree forcefully! Wherever your current beliefs on evolution lie on the spectrum, I would highly recommend Creation or Evolution as part of a wider programme of reading that includes material representing many different viewpoints on the topic. As mentioned above, you may find it leaves you with more questions than you had at the beginning! The postscript contains a severe rebuke to Christians who attack evolution out of ignorance, assuming it to be anti-God without having taken the time to study the evidence for themselves. Reading Alexander’s book may or may not change your view on evolution, but it will certainly pave the way to more informed and rational debate on the topic.

Further reading:

Four Views on Creation, Evolution and Intelligent Design (Zondervan Counterpoints series) features essays from contributors at each of the organisations below:

Evolutionary creationism (theistic evolution)

Intelligent design
Discovery Institute:

Young earth creationism
Answer in Genesis:

Old earth creationism
Reasons to Believe:

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