Pharyngula

One of the most common strategems for reconciling evolution and the Bible that I’ve run into is the Day-Age hypothesis, the claim that each of the seven ‘days’ of the book of Genesis represents one of God’s days, which doesn’t have to be 24 hours long, but could be millions or billions of years instead. All you have to do is stretch the timescale of Genesis to fit the geological timescale, and voilà, it’s a perfect metaphorical description of the very same processes science has described. Why, those old Hebrews couldn’t have known all that geology and astronomy, therefore they must have received insider information from their creator.

Believe me, I’ve heard it a thousand times, and I’m not exaggerating when I say they claim it was impossible for the authors of the Bible to have known all that information that lines up so precisely with our modern understanding of the universe’s origins. Really. Would I lie to you? The Washington Post has a perfect example in a short piece by the biologist Andrew Parker (who we have encountered before). He actually has respectable credentials in the field, has written an interesting (but terribly flawed) book about the Cambrian explosion, and is definitely not a young earth creationist. Those guys are deeply crazy.* Which, when you look at how nutty Parker’s views are, means that we haven’t even begun to plumb the depths of derangement of which these people are capable yet.

I recently volunteered to place the creation account of Genesis 1 side-by-side with our new scientific understanding of the history of life and the universe. Excepting the absurd fiction that the world was created in seven days, I found an eerily-close match. Amazingly, the precise wording of the Bible’s first page, and the events inferred and the sequence with which they are placed, tells the story of life’s history according to our current best scientific understanding. That a man without scientific knowledge , should write such a thing in 700 BCE is almost scary. And then another man of similar stock placed it on the first page of his people’s most important book. This is what I call a genesis enigma.

On the Bible’s first page ‘Let there be light’ is mentioned twice, why? Recently science has provided answers in both physics and biology — the formation of the sun followed by the introduction of vision — and I played some scientific role in the second.

In Genesis 1, emphasis is placed on sea creatures, despite this biblical author being landlocked with little or no knowledge of marine life. Who in their right mind would have placed these center stage? The more I looked, the more the Genesis creation story seemed unlikely to be the result of a lucky guess. That got me thinking a few winters ago.

Are those words really sacred, in some way? As a scientist not in the habit of contemplating the divine, I was later surprised to discover within religion some good old rationality.

No, Genesis 1 does not line up with reality. Try it yourself.

1 In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.

2 And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.

3 And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.

4 And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.

5 And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.

Day 1

God makes heaven and a formless earth, and light and dark, apparently in that order.

This isn’t right. The earth is a relatively late arrival; there was roughly 9 billion years between the Big Bang and the accretion of the earth. That’s a mighty big gap, and a false statement in the very first sentence. Now if it said, “God created matter and energy,” maybe then it would fit.

I don’t get all the “waters” stuff. The early earth wasn’t covered in water.

6 And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.

7 And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so.

8 And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day.

Day 2

God creates heaven by separating waters.

Again, water all over the place. This doesn’t fit any physical explanation for the history of the universe or the earth.

Note that what is being described here is an aquatic universe in which god creates a solid firmament to separate the earth and its atmosphere from a great watery ocean in which it is floating; this isn’t your modern astronomy by any stretch of the imagination.

9 And God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so.

10 And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called he Seas: and God saw that it was good.

11 And God said, Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit after his kind, whose seed is in itself, upon the earth: and it was so.

12 And the earth brought forth grass, and herb yielding seed after his kind, and the tree yielding fruit, whose seed was in itself, after his kind: and God saw that it was good.

13 And the evening and the morning were the third day.

Day 3

God raises up the land on a watery earth, and then he creates trees and grasses.

Again, flowering plants and grasses are late arrivals in the history of life on earth. Grasses arose in the Cretaceous and flourished in the Neogene; angiosperms evolved in the Jurassic. This puts them well after fish (day 5), for instance.

14 And God said, Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years:

15 And let them be for lights in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth: and it was so.

16 And God made two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night: he made the stars also.

17 And God set them in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth,

18 And to rule over the day and over the night, and to divide the light from the darkness: and God saw that it was good.

19 And the evening and the morning were the fourth day.

Day 4

Finally, God gets around to making the sun and the moon and the stars.

You are all aware that these astronomical objects preceded the appearance of life, I presume?

20 And God said, Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life, and fowl that may fly above the earth in the open firmament of heaven.

21 And God created great whales, and every living creature that moveth, which the waters brought forth abundantly, after their kind, and every winged fowl after his kind: and God saw that it was good.

22 And God blessed them, saying, Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas, and let fowl multiply in the earth.

23 And the evening and the morning were the fifth day.

Day 5

God creates everything that flies in the air and lives in the water.

Isn’t this just a little weird? It’s a distinction entirely by habitat, ignoring the fact that whales, for instance, first evolved on the land and then moved into the sea. Birds are also more late arrivals on the evolutionary scene.

Most important: squid are completely neglected in this scheme. Apparently, they are just random members of the lumpeninvertebrata, snapped into existence as part of a great sushi gemisch, and not even worth mentioning. Blasphemy!

24 And God said, Let the earth bring forth the living creature after his kind, cattle, and creeping thing, and beast of the earth after his kind: and it was so.

25 And God made the beast of the earth after his kind, and cattle after their kind, and every thing that creepeth upon the earth after his kind: and God saw that it was good.

26 And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.

27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.

28 And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.

29 And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat.

30 And to every beast of the earth, and to every fowl of the air, and to every thing that creepeth upon the earth, wherein there is life, I have given every green herb for meat: and it was so.

31 And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good. And the evening and the morning were the sixth day.

Day 6

God creates terrestrial animals, and people. The people are put in charge.

It’s a rather shameful compression of time. After all, the first terrestrial animals (something like the trigontarbid fossils from about 440 million years ago) preceded humans by about, oh, 440 million years. I guess they were wandering about masterless for a great long time.

God slacked off on the seventh day, so we’ll ignore it.

And don’t even get me started on Genesis 2, in which a male human is created first, and all the other animals afterwards, and a woman was an afterthought.

Parker is way off base — there is no way to line up Genesis with any modern, scientific history of the universe. Why, it looks to me like raw guesswork building on a Middle Eastern oral and written tradition that had no privileged information about cosmology at all!

Parker’s other assertions are way off, too. He has a bit of an obsession with the evolution of vision, so what he’s trying to claim is that what is being described is first the physical creation of light on Day 1, and then Day 4 is a metaphor for the evolution of vision, which allowed creatures to see the light. Which doesn’t make sense. There were no creatures with eyes on Day 4, just a lot of plants sitting in the dark waiting an indeterminate time (but more than 24 hours) for some way to photosynthesize.

I’d be more impressed if the Old Testament scribes had written, “And lo, on the fourth day, God created opsin and G proteins, and enabled a primitive signal transduction pathway, and God called the signal transduction pathway vision, and God saw that it was good.” That would be scary accuracy. “God poofed the Moon into existence and stuck it to the firmamement with a handy pushpin,”, not so impressive.

And what the heck is Parker smoking that he thinks this text puts emphasis on sea creatures, placing them center stage? They get one clause in one sentence on Day Five, the only ones specifically mentioned are whales, and they’re sharing billing with birds!

I think Andrew Parker is going to have to be my favorite example of an intelligent, educated man who has been totally god-whacked into madness by religion, seeing stuff in texts that is simply not there.


*By the way, talking to the ordinary creationist, the kind of person you might bump into the coffee shop, you will sometimes find ones who endorse the Day-Age theory. I’ve even encountered a few grad students who use it to reconcile their beliefs with science. However, by far the most common kind of creationist haunting our country today is the young earth creationist, who dispenses with all that conciliatory fol-de-rol and simply declares science completely wrong in its interpretations and that the earth is literally and actually less than ten thousand years old and that God did it all in precisely six 24 hour days. This has been a trend; anecdotally, I’ve found the YECs are much more common and much more arrogant in their beliefs now than, say, twenty years ago. It’s what Answers in Genesis promotes, after all.

For the sake of completeness, I’ll mention that another way to reconcile the Bible with an old earth is the Gap Theory. This idea states that there is an undescribed gap in the history of Genesis 1, right after “God created the heaven and earth”, in which the earth was riven with catastrophe and chaos, when there were fallen angels and giants and dragons fighting against the legions of heaven, and during which geology happened. This sounds like a very fascinating period that would make a great fantasy novel, but it didn’t involve humans, so God didn’t think we’d be interested…so he starts with the restoration of order and the creation of Eden, which occured 6000 years ago. Personally, I have never met a single creationist who endorsed this interpretation, although I know they’re out there: this was the favored explanation in the Scofield Bible so beloved of fundamentalists for so long.

Another by the way, that a lot of people haven’t figured out yet: fundamentalism does not demand belief in young earth creationism. This is another trend, fueled by people like Ken Ham, who insist that the only true fundamentalist doctrine is one that involves a literal 6000 year old earth created in a literal 6 days. They seem to be winning the propaganda war, too, since many creationists and evolutionists alike think that fundamentalism and young earth creationism go hand-in-hand.

Comments

  1. #1 Chitta
    December 26, 2009

    Why are all you commentators so hung up on ONLY the bibilical view of ‘creation’?

    Numerous religious and folk traditions exist among the many races and religions of the world; which are often quite different from the Genesis account of creation.

    Why shouldn’t each of these myths, have their own lobby of ‘scientific’ excuse makers, and argue for the supposed brilliance of their own myth makers?. Each could also make their exclusive claim to ‘knowing’ the REAL story from their own ‘only true god’.

    The only way I can understand the minds of those who created any one of these creation beliefs (genesis or any other), is that these myths are formalised ways in which the human psyche tries to connect with and make sense of the universe and the relationship between a universal conscisousness and matter. In many traditions creation myths are tied with rituals that have to do with the mind-matter connection.

    I don’t believe that these myths should ever be seen as a physical explanation of the formation or creation of the universe.

    All the sciences and applied technologies that we have developed to date, are too thoroughly integrated for any part of them to be declared false, without falsifying every other part – just for the sake of the book of Genesis, or the Mayan turtles myth or any other creation story.

    It would make complete nonsense of all science and technology known and used today – we might as well blow ourselves right back to a pre-scientific age and stay put – Forget about benefitting from the discovery of nature and its workings through testable knowledge!