Monday, July 20, 2009

The Genesis 'Enigma'

I was amused this week to discover that Professor Andrew Parker, a research fellow at Oxford University and research leader at the Natural History Museum, has just committed what has come to be the equivalent of intellectual suicide by publishing a book entitled 'The Genesis Enigma'. Parker is maintaining that the order of creation in book of Genesis - which you more commonly find being slammed for it's catalogue of scientific errors - has in fact been confirmed by modern evolutionary science. Not surprisingly his Amazon listing is already attracting pre-emptive one star reviews.

As this article in the Daily Mail describes:

In the Book of Genesis, God first and most famously creates heaven and earth, but 'without form', and commands: 'Let there be light.' A perfect description of the Big Bang, that founding moment of our universe some 13 billion years ago, an unimaginable explosion of pure energy and matter 'without form' out of nothing - the primordial Biblical 'void'. He then creates the dry land out of the waters, but it is the water that comes first. As Parker points out, scientists today understand very similarly that water is indeed crucial for life.

When 'astrobiologists' look into space for signs of life on other planets, the first thing they look for is the possible presence of water. On the third day, we are told: '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."'

Now factually speaking, grass didn't evolve until much later. In the Triassic and Jurassic epochs, the dinosaurs knew only plants such as giant conifers and tree ferns. But since grass did not in fact evolve until much later, a sternly literal-minded scientist would declare the Bible wrong, and consign it to the nearest wheelie bin.

But wait a minute, says Parker. If you take 'grass, herb and tree' to mean photosynthesising life in general, then this is, once again, spot on.

And so on and so forth. Day four where the 'two lights' are created presents something of a problem for Parker but he comes up with an ingenious solution.

Parker argues that day four refers to the evolution of vision.

Until the first creatures on earth evolved eyes, in a sense, the sun and moon didn't exist. There was no creature on earth to see them, nor the light they cast. When Genesis says: 'Let there be lights... To divide the day from the night,' it is talking about eyes.

'The very first eye on earth effectively turned on the lights for animal behaviour,' writes Professor Parker, 'and consequently for further rapid evolution.' Almost overnight, life suddenly grew vastly more complex. Predators were able to hunt far more efficiently, and so prey had to evolve fast too - or get eaten.

Sure enough with the arrival of vision on the fourth day ' the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life'.

Readers of this blog will recognise this a revival of a peculiarly early modern approach to scripture. One of the characteristics of science in the era of the reformation was the decline of the textual authority of figures like Aristotle and the rise in the scientific authority of the bible. Humanist scholarship elevated both the most well preserved texts of the ancients and the de-Catholicised text of the bible as supremely reliable. It would remain there until the arrival of higher criticism. Protestant scientists followed their forebears in reading the Bible and the book of nature in tandem as complementary. However they also began a retreat from symbolic and allegorical meanings towards a far more literal treatment of the text. It was believed that the Old Testament set out in plain terms, the creation of the world, the origin of humanity and the ancient history of the world from the earliest times. In the area of natural philosophy nature was stripped of all symbolic significance in favour of facts. Early modern natural philosophers began to study such matters as the biological consequences of the fall, the effects of the flood and the tower of Babel.

One thing that caused great consternation was the age of the Old Testament patriarchs which seemed way in excess of the contemporary lifespans. Hence, sticking to a literal reading, some argued that the events described by Genesis resulted in changes to the human constitution. Richard Cumberland (1632-1718) for example, argued that Noah and his family had been able to populate the world because ‘the constitution of such long-lived men must needs be stronger than ours is and consequently more able and fit to propagate mankind to great numbers than men can and now do’.

Such approaches are now deeply unfashionable in mainstream science, but perhaps Professor Parker's new book shows there is hope of an almighty comeback.

Discuss this post at the Quodlibeta Forum


Karl said...

I just love how two of the three reviewers didn't even bother to read the book before posting one star reviews on Amazon. I mean I just love people that base everything on second-hand sources, hearsay and conjecture rather than actually taking the time to look at the primary source.

But then I shouldn't be surprised; I have noticed that many people in this debate tend to be surprisingly ignorant of their opponent's arguments and the evidence and logic they use to support those arguments. Probably because they don't bother to read anything that doesn't conform to their preconceived beliefs. It is almost like they are afraid of the contamination of their minds if they actually look at such a book.

Humphrey said...

I would like to know what else is in the book since I don't see - based on the little the review in the Daily Mail says - how he has enough material for 320 pages.

Humphrey said...

I wonder if this Parker chap has read Robert Grosseteste (1175-1253). In his ‘Treatise on Light’, based on earlier natural philosophy (Ibn Gebirol, Avicenna and Algazel) and a reading of Genesis (St Augustine), he wrote that out of nothing pre-existing, God had created a single point from which the entire physical order was to derive by way of extension or expansion. The first dimensionless point was light which was one and simple, containing matter implicitly in its light form. Confirmed by modern science?...well, sort of .

James said...

It looks like one of the one star reviews is by a Christian annoyed that parker has ignored biblical scholarship. I'd say he has a point. We spend ages saying the Bible isn't a scientific document (Humphrey saying it better than anyone else) and then this Porter chap comes along an says that actually it is. It reminds me of Hugh Ross and looks worth avoiding.

As for the article, I immediately thought of Questions in the Daily Mail to which the Answer is No.

Humphrey said...

Hugh Ross argued that the Vela supernova has recently caused deadly cosmic radiation to bathe the Earth and it is this that explains "the gradual, exponential reduction in life spans from about 900 to 120 years—reported in Genesis 11". This is a bit of a stretch for me but I suspect the Richard Cumberland I quoted in the post would have approved.

Anonymous said...

Parker's treatment in "The Enigma of Genesis" is not a presumption that establishes a theory that makes the bible equal to the quest of modern science.

What it is, is a plea to consider the Genesis account of creation the enigma that it is. Science is dedicated to trying to answer questions regarding the creation of what is a great mystery. If it were not a mystery there would be no need for scientific exploration.

Condemning the genesis account because we think we know enough from scientific theory to ridicule any treatment of this account is ridiculous in itself.

Science excersises its imagination when uncovering certain evidence and draws conclusions. The conclusions are in no way truth.

No one has a monopoly in the search for truth. If the visible world is a mystery to us; how much more the invisible. All the senses must be engaged in the exploration of truth, keenly tuned to every bit of information that helps us see the totality of the creation process. Finding fault with someones approach is not science, it is a topic that requires exploration in itself.

Tony F. Reyes

Anonymous said...

John said,

Prof. Parker is not trying to say that we should read Genesis like a scientific book.

He is trying to open our mind to wonder about the mystery of the biblical author and how it could have been compatible and correlates with modern evolutionary science.

But more importantly, he showed us how being a prominant evolutionary biologist, it is possible to also be a believer in God and evolution and God is not incompatible.

I think this is the most important lesson I learned from the book.

What I do not like about the book is his comment in the appendix about the J. E.D. P. theory. I think that is over his head and better avoided.