Image above from the lab of Kristian Swearingen: human red blood cells infected with Plasmodium falciparum, the parasite that causes malaria.
I am a scientist. More specifically, I am a bioanalytical chemist and a parasitologist. I study life, especially parasites, at the molecular level to see what makes them tick. I have a bachelor’s degree, two masters, and a Ph.D in chemistry, and I am currently part of a research team that is attempting to develop a vaccine against malaria. And I have absolutely zero formal theological training. Accordingly, I will go light on the theology and heavy on the science. Buckle up.
Today is the first Sunday of the season of Advent. This year, we are looking at Advent through the lens of science, and specifically, the theory of evolution. I’d like to acknowledge that for some of you, this might feel uncomfortable or even heretical. A younger me certainly would have thought so. And let me also acknowledge that the parallels between the liturgical season of Advent and the theory of evolution might not be immediately clear. I wanted to take the challenge of drawing the connection for you all, because the story of the theory of evolution has actually had a huge impact on my faith. See, I was raised in a fundamentalist evangelical church and I was taught that being a Christian absolutely requires rejecting that life evolved from a common ancestor over millions of years. We basically treated all mainstream science as thinly-veiled atheistic propaganda. Over the course of my scientific training in high school and college, the critical thinking and philosophy and science I learned made it harder and harder for me to hold on to my Christian faith while being honest with myself, and I felt torn between my community of Christians, who were anti-intellectual and anti-science, and my community of scientists and thinkers, who were anti-Christianity and anti-religion in general. It wasn’t until I left Alaska and came to Seattle and found Church of the Apostles that I discovered that there were actually Christian communities that believe faith and science are not incompatible. Here’s something that I didn’t know back when I was a conflicted young scientist: until recently, most Christians were totally fine with evolution. In fact, well into the 20th century, Christians widely accepted an ancient earth and evolution of life. In 1959, The Baptist Theologian Bernard Ramm published a book entitled “The Christian View of Science and Scripture”. Ramm was a chemistry major here at UW, but he switched to philosophy of biology and then went off to seminary. He argued that that it is absolutely consistent for Evangelicals to accept the conclusions of science regarding the age of the earth and the evolution of life while still holding to their faith that the Bible is the Divinely Inspired Word of God. That’s right – even Evangelical Baptists were on board with evolution. Two years later, in direct response to this book, a seminarian named John Whitcomb and a hydraulic engineer named Henry Morris published their book “The Genesis Flood”, in which they argued that we have to take Genesis literally, that the earth is only about 6,000 years old, and that Noah’s flood caused all the geological formations that make scientists think the earth is 4.5 billion years old. This was arguably the birth of modern Young Earth Creationism. I tell you this in case you are worried that this church is committing some new heresy by embracing evolution and incorporating it into worship. We’re not. And I also tell you this in case you are a Christian who feels like you have to reject science in order to be true to your faith. You don’t.
Now for the science lesson.
In 1859, Charles Darwin published “On the Origin of Species”. This book outlined his theory of natural selection as the explanation for how the myriad species we see today could have descended from one or a few common ancestors. The impact of Darwin’s Theory on the science of life cannot be overstated. And yet, you might be surprised to learn that Darwin didn’t invent the idea of evolution. This idea – that that plants and animals could change from one form to another over long periods of time – has been around since ancient Greece. Even Charles Darwin’s Grandfather Erasumus Darwin, himself a natural philosopher, had published a book 13 years before Charles Darwin was even born in which he proposed the idea that all animal life could have descended from a common ancestor. Grandpa Erasmus said that this ancient common ancestor was created by “The Great First Cause”. Before and during Charles Darwin’s day, the question was not whether evolution had happened, but how it happened. There were various competing theories, but none of them were able to describe a mechanism. What Darwin did was provide a scientific theory of evolution, a mechanism that explains how evolution happens. My philosophy of biology professor in college was fond of saying that “without the theory of evolution, biology is not a science – it is just naturalism!” What he meant was this: prior to Darwin codifying the idea of natural selection as the driving force behind evolution, the study of life was mainly a cataloging project. Naturalists would discover new plants and animals, catalogue all of their various features, and attempt to put them in their place in the hierarchy of life. And what these naturalists observed after cataloging everything was that every one of these creatures, from the biggest mammal to the smallest ant, from giant redwoods to slime molds, was remarkably well-adapted to its environment. Every feature of an organism appeared almost as if it were designed to help that creature survive in a fiercely competitive world, to give it an edge. A cheetah is fast enough to catch a gazelle, some of the time, and a gazelle finds safety in numbers. One type of tree might slowly grow taller than all the others and catches more light, while a certain shrub might grow quickly, calling first dibs on an open field after a forest fire and thriving in the wreckage. This all might seem obvious enough. I know that I failed to grasp the significance of adaptation when I first encountered the idea. The major conceptual leap for me came when we begin to ask “why”? Why is a cheetah fast, why is a redwood tall, why is a fish a good swimmer? If asked “why does a giraffe have a long neck”, my answer would have been “so that it can reach the leaves high up in the trees”. But that’s not it, really. That’s not the whole story. My professor exhorted me to keep digging, keep asking. I learned to ask “why does the giraffe want the leaves at the top of the trees?”. And the answer is: because the other animals can’t reach those leaves. And why does that matter? Because there are a finite number of leaves to eat and lots of other hungry animals trying to eat them. So the answer to the question “why does a giraffe have a long neck?” is “so that it can outcompete other animals for access to limited resources”.
Okay, so now we have an idea of why organisms are adapted to their environments. But we’re not doing science yet. A scientific theory tells us how. It gives us a mechanism. So we’ve got this observation that organisms are remarkably well-adapted to their environments. But how did they get this way? Charles Darwin’s breakthrough insight was this: organisms spontaneously change, these changes can be passed on from parent to child, and any changes that help an organism survive long enough to reproduce will be passed on. To really get at what this means, let’s go back to our giraffe example. And let’s wind the clock back to before giraffes had long necks, back when they were eating the low-hanging leaves and competing with all the other short-necked leaf-eaters. When two short-necked giraffes had a baby, it inherited their physical traits – it looked like them. Mostly. But there were also spontaneous mutations that would pop up every now and then. Most of these mutations had no effect, but some made life harder and some made life easier. Let’s say one day a baby giraffe was born with a slightly longer neck. When it grew up it had less competition getting food because it could reach leaves that no one else could. This long-necked giraffe survived to have long-necked babies, who would started to edge out the short-necked giraffes for finite food resources, and eventually the long-necked giraffes replaced the short-necked giraffes. This became the new normal. But because now everyone had a longer neck, the competition among the giraffes remained as fierce as it ever was, so there was still pressure to change in ways that gave new giraffes new advantages…and giraffes are continuing to evolve to this day. This is Natural Selection.
Now, at last, we’re doing science. We are no longer naturalists – we are biologists! We have a mechanism to explain why living things are so well-adapted to their environment, why there are so many forms of life on earth today, and why the fossil record shows what sure looks like a family tree of long-gone ancestors that have changed so much over time, but that nonetheless bear a strong family resemblence that seems to go all the way back to a great-great-a million times-great grandmother of us all. In the years since Charles Darwin, the entire discipline of biology has been devoted to testing and modifying and building this theory of life. It is still a work in progress, but the theory of evolution by natural selection still stands as the bedrock of life science.
Now, the fact that the diversity of life arose this way has many implications, but I’m concerned with one in particular for this season: if evolution by natural selection is how life came to be, then that means life is still being created. God did not make everything as it is and set humans at the top of the pile and then log off for the night. No, life has been brewing and evolving and changing for over 4 billion years to get to what we see today. And guess what? It’s not done! This is not the end of the line; we are not the pinnacle of creation. This is just as far as life had gotten at the point that some hairless monkeys became self-aware and started writing things down. Life continues to be created, and will continue to be created, and we have no idea what’s next.
And this, to me, is where the theory of evolution ties in with the story of Advent. Life continues to be created, and we have no idea what’s next. The people of Israel at the time just before Jesus shows up remind me a lot of our naturalists who were looking for a good theory. They paid very good attention to detail. They knew their history, they read the law and the prophets. They could sense that there was an arc to their story: faithful god, fallen people, punishment, then grace, repeated over and over, but with the promise that one day a messiah would come and finally set things right. They knew what their story was, and they knew why they needed a messiah…but how? How was the promised one going to set things right? That was the mystery. Some expected a war hero, or a king, or miracle-working leader who would wipe out their oppressors, but no one expected Jesus of Nazareth. No one expected a man who would tell them to live humbly, love radically, and turn the other cheek, a man who would let himself be tortured to death just to prove his point. And nobody expected that the life and death of this one homeless carpenter would be the tiny change that would alter the entire course of human history. Remember our mechanism that explains evolution, that beneficial variations get passed on? Thing is, it doesn’t just apply to life: it applies to anything that can be passed on, even ideas. What Jesus taught and how he lived was new, and it caught hold of people in a new way, it changed the way they saw the world, and it made them want to share the story with others, who shared it with others, who shared it with others. That’s the thing about evolution: it subverts our expectations. Same goes for how God creates: it subverts our expectations. We can see what’s happened before, and we can see what’s happening now, but we can’t predict what’s going to happen next. Both the story of life on earth and the story of our faith are exquisitely complex, a vast web of interrelations in which life and death play equal roles in creating what has been and what will come next. Every single organism that has ever lived is part of the story of life on earth, and every living thing on earth today bears the indelible marks of our shared history in its very DNA. Likewise, every person that has ever lived is part of the story of humanity, and every person alive today has been shaped by our shared history. Life continues to be created. History continues to be written. You do not need to rise up and take your place in the act of creating life or of writing history – you have been part of creation since the day you were born, and you will continue to be a co-creator until the day that you die, whether you realize it or not.
And what do you do with that?
A final thought:
If there’s one thing that I hope to impart to you with all of this talk of biology and creation and life and Advent, it is that you are part of something amazing and terrifying and beautiful. Both the story of life on earth and the story of our faith were written with equal parts life and death, equal parts hope and despair, equal parts beauty and suffering. This church is a community that gathers to embrace our story. We own our history, all of it, even the ugly stuff, and we hope to God that our story can be redeemed when it is viewed from perspective of the beauty that it creates.