Creation Versus Evolution - Does it Really Matter?
In the 1980s, our young family was living in a suburb of Detroit. Since both Sue and I were raised in Detroit, we knew the area well; as often as possible we took short, local day trips so we could spend time together.
One of our favorite trips was to the Toledo Zoo, about a one-hour drive from our home. A highly rated zoo, it was relatively compact and easy to cover in three or four hours with five young children.
The zoo had been successfully breeding gorillas for zoos around the nation for a number of years. I have always been fascinated by gorillas; I could stand all day watching them play, groom each other, eat, and sleep. What fascinated me most were their human-like qualities and behaviors, and what captivated me most were the spiritual thoughts and questions that inevitably surfaced as I observed them.
For centuries, people have questioned whether God created humans as a distinct and intellectually superior species (as in the biblical story of creation), or if humans evolved from apes over many millennia of successive mutations (as scientists have theorized). I could fully understand how this issue had confounded both theologians and scientists over the centuries, and the controversy surrounding the famous and highly publicized Scopes Trial of 1925 was not surprising to me.
John Scopes was a Tennessee high school teacher accused of violating a state law that prohibited the teaching of any theory that denied the biblical story of divine creation. The trial, which concerned a relatively simple legal question, ultimately became an internationally publicized debate between well-known prosecuting attorney William Jennings Bryant and defense attorney Clarence Darrow, who battled over the inherent conflict between evolutionary theory and the biblical account of divine creation. Most of the evidence and testimony regarding evolution and creation was deemed inadmissible. Scopes was convicted of technically violating state law but was given only a very nominal monetary fine. The widespread public fascination with the trial demonstrates the emotion surrounding the broader theological and scientific questions it raised.
As I stood watching the huge primates interact at the zoo, my struggle with these issues was an internal one, related to the impact such questions had on my own faith. Even as a young adult, I believed in God and very strongly believed that God had created the universe and all of the creatures and life forms inhabiting it. For me, divine creation was never in doubt; rather, I wondered whether God had created gorillas and apes as an independent species from humans—or whether God’s original creation had in fact mutated and evolved over time into humans.
Though I tried to be unbiased, I seriously doubted that the first ape evolved without a divine hand in its creation. Given my strong math and science background and my training in probability and statistics during my actuarial education, I simply could not believe that, even over a period of millions of years, an ape or a human could evolve of its own accord from a single-cell amoebic life form. I found it far more credible to believe that only a higher divine power could be responsible for such complex physical creatures. And even if I could convince myself of an evolutionary theory, how was the first amoeba created? To me, God is real and is the originator of life on earth in all its forms.
Nonetheless, the scientific elements of my education make it impossible for me to deny that adaptive mutations do in fact occur. I know some theologians may argue this point, but I don’t buy it. Animals and plant life can and do adapt, something that has been proven through much scientific experimentation. Moreover, I believe God bestowed living beings with this adaptability.
In 1989, when my youngest son, Corey, was eighteen months old, we took the family to the Toledo Zoo one Saturday afternoon. In my usual fashion, I made a beeline for the gorilla exhibit, which was viewed through a floor-to-ceiling glass window that provided a look at both the outdoor play area and the large indoor area with trees, ropes to swing from, and various rock ledges. In the indoor exhibit room that day were several adult gorillas, a couple of adolescents, and one toddler who seemed very close to Corey’s size and age.
A fairly large crowd of visitors made it somewhat difficult to work our way up to the glass windows. When we finally maneuvered through the crowd to the front, Corey had perhaps the best view. The crowd was loud—animated and laughing—but suddenly all that changed.
As Corey gazed through the window, he pressed both hands flat against the glass. Seeing him, the toddler gorilla jumped onto a two-foot rock ledge against the glass observation window, walked slowly over to where Corey was standing, and assumed exactly the same posture as Corey. His legs were spread at about shoulder width and his hands were opened and pressed against the inside glass, precisely opposite Corey’s hands. For a few amazing minutes, they stood quietly admiring each other, probably wishing the glass barrier weren’t separating them from playful interaction. The astounded crowd turned eerily silent—many likely marveling over the obvious connection between the species.
To this day that image is etched in my memory—it has caused me to realize that an abandoned human baby would probably be accepted into, and raised by, such a family of gorillas. There was a bridge that day across the species that bonded and united the hearts and minds of those too young to feel threatened by a potentially dangerous playmate. What is it about humans who, in spite of their superior intellect and communication skills, have such a difficult time co-existing on the planet? What is it that causes wars and destruction when the instincts of these young ones are to accept one another as fellow global companions, even across species?
Without the glass barrier, Corey would have been very vulnerable to a mother gorilla, who would have been strong enough to tear him to shreds if she felt threatened by the two toddlers touching. But would the mother gorilla do that? Might she instead peacefully accept such playful interactions between two infants so similar in so many ways? Watching their interaction, I focused on the trust and ease with which the young of the two species approached and observed each other. Surely God had instilled such confidence and trust in both our young and the young of our primate relatives.
I find myself fascinated more by the similarities than the differences in the species for other reasons. The natural bond between animals of any species is a reaffirmation to me of God’s love and of the wonder of creation. For me, the complexities of the physical capabilities and features of every species give witness to God’s hand in all creation. The natural attraction and bond between an eighteen-month-old human and an eighteen-month-old gorilla tells me we were created to live in peace and harmony as fellow inhabitants of the planet.
Like the arguments in the Scopes Trial, this brief interaction between species could be interpreted in many different ways. Some might suggest it is evidence that humans have indeed evolved from these less sophisticated creatures with their natural familial affinity for one another. Some might think, as I briefly did, of the danger of a powerful mother gorilla protecting her young—and might suggest that survival of the fittest would never have allowed humans to evolve and survive when apes are so much more powerful. Still others might believe that apes would have become extinct due to their intellectual inferiority. And some might point to many failed experiments to artificially inseminate apes using human sperm as evidence that the species indeed are distinct and not genetically compatible.
It may belie my divinity school education, but for me such a debate is not terribly important. I see God’s divine hand in creation and I marvel at the bond shared by the natural world and the human inhabitants of earth.
Many years after that incident at the Toledo Zoo, I was given even greater insight into the issues with which I grappled—this time in a rain forest halfway around the world, again involving Corey and a toddler gorilla.
In the summer of 2008, as I was entering my second year as a graduate student at Yale Divinity School, Sue and I traveled with Corey and Zac to Africa. We had planned the trip for more than a year and had carefully chosen sites to visit in Rwanda, Namibia, Botswana, and South Africa. I was most excited about the trip to Rwanda, as we had arranged to trek through the rain forests of the Rwandan mountains to observe families of mountain gorillas in their natural habitat.
After a very long journey, we arrived and spent the evening before our first trek at our lodge at the base of the mountain. I could hardly sleep in anticipation of walking among the gorillas without the protective barrier of a glass wall in a fabricated zoological exhibit.
The next morning we were given a training session by our guides. Then our small group of eight tourists and four guides armed with automatic rifles began ascending the mountain. The rifles were not to be used on the typically gentle and herbivorous gorillas but were for protection against poachers and other insurgent guerillas. Only a few weeks earlier, poachers had massacred an entire family of mountain gorillas in this same vicinity, and the well-publicized story was fresh on the minds of all in our group. During the training, our guides indicated it was illegal to get closer than seven meters to any gorilla—but without a protective glass barrier, that seemed dangerously close to us.
About an hour into our hike we discovered a family of seventeen gorillas eating the jungle vegetation at the edge of the rain forest. Words can’t describe our excitement and awe as we approached these giant but gentle creatures in their natural setting. They slowly and quietly moved along the forest’s edge, stopping to eat and occasionally to climb a tree or to groom each other. The adolescents didn’t seem as playful in the wild as they were in the zoo; foraging for food was serious business.
A couple of the adult females were carrying and nursing very young infants; there was also a toddler among the pack, whom I judged to be between eighteen and twenty-four months old. For two or three glorious hours, we stood within twenty or thirty feet of this gorilla family, observing and snapping photographs.
Once again, my mind turned to the wonder of creation, this time without much consideration of evolution. There was far too much to observe and think about to waste time contemplating who came first or how the species were similar or different. This was a time to marvel over God’s creation and the peacefulness in which God intended us to co-exist with these magnificent creatures.
In a wonderful moment of déjà vu, the small toddler moved away from the group and began to closely follow Corey. Now twenty years old and over six feet tall, he was the chosen playmate of this young gorilla toddler. The guides kept warning Corey to back up in order to maintain the seven-meter safety cushion, but each time Corey backed up, the toddler followed him. This playful little guy would scamper up to within three or four feet of Corey, then come to a slow crawl or stop just short of being close enough to touch him.
I couldn’t avoid thinking about the zoo and my conjecture that the glass barrier was so important in protecting both the humans and the gorillas. My presumption in Toledo that the mother gorilla might violently defend her young was convincingly proven wrong. The adult gorillas were still very close to us but seemed completely unconcerned that one of their young was approaching a human being.
The initial experience at the zoo had triggered many thoughts about creation and evolution; the experience in Rwanda brought them back. But through these experiences God was telling me that in time answers would be revealed to me—but most important was my faith and my renewed celebration in the grandeur of God’s creation in all its forms.
One of the difficult issues I have at times pondered is the role of evolution in animal and human history. I often spend too much time trying to analyze and understand the apparent conflicts between science and religion and not enough time marveling at God’s creation. It wasn’t until I had these amusing and enlightening experiences with gorillas—both in captivity and in the wild—that I realized that no matter how life forms have changed, mutated, or evolved, God is consistently revealed through the miracle of creation.
The biblical account of creation is a beautiful story that some think is mythical. They point to similar but different creation stories of many other religious traditions as evidence that all religions need to provide some explanation for our origins and that none of the stories can be considered factual. As we look at those stories and their differences, we can’t help but wonder if any of them contain elements of truth. In that wonderment it’s easy to lose sight of the incredible reality that life in many varied forms actually exists! The marvel to me is not how we were created but rather the very fact that we exist.
Have there been times in your life when your faith was challenged by apparent conflicts between religious beliefs and the discoveries of science? What are some of the more perplexing questions raised by these conflicts? Can you think of any examples in which God provided at least partial answers, or alternatively assured you that your faith was more important than immediate answers? Maybe it wasn’t done literally in a day, and maybe some transitional mutations occurred within and among species, but let’s continue to cherish the biblical account in Genesis 1, and let’s celebrate and express gratitude to God for the beauty, complexity, and diversity of life that surrounds us daily.