Tuesday, 28 July 2015

A criticism of Stephen Palmer's talks at the Coventry Creation Day - 4

Paul on Mars Hill – Epicureanism is not the same thing as evolutionary biology

Special creationists appeal to Paul’s address on Mars Hill both to prove monogenism, and to claim that as the Epicureans were ‘evolutionists’, Paul’s address is evidence that he did not accommodate it. The first point is based on a complete lack of understanding of the context of Paul’s address and a flawed reading of the relevant verses in Acts 17, while the second claim is an evidence-free assertion that makes the mistake of confusing ancient Greek philosophical speculation with modern science which is comprehensively attested by the scientific evidence. One could just as readily argue that Paul did not accommodate atomic theory given that Epicurus adhered to this theory. Are we to deny the atomic theory of matter to be consistent? The folly is this position is clearly evident.

Where the special creationist attacks founder is that they forget that: the evolutionary speculations of Epicurus are to modern evolutionary biology what atomic materialism is to modern particle physics. The evidence for both views is overwhelming, and to dismiss evolutionary biology simply because Paul argued with philosophers who maintained a primitive philosophical analogue to it makes as much sense as to deny that matter consists of atoms because the Epicureans were atomic materialists.

Returning to the first point, it is useful once again to acquaint ourselves with why it is impossible for the entire human race to have descended exclusively from two people living a few thousand years ago. In short, there is too much genetic diversity across the human genome to have emerged in a few thousand years from two people. The evangelical Christian and geneticist Dennis Venema notes:
Taken individually and collectively, population genomics studies strongly suggest that our lineage has not experienced an extreme population bottleneck in the last nine million years or more (and thus not in any hominid, nor even an australopithecine species), and that any bottlenecks our lineage did experience were a reduction only to a population of several thousand breeding individuals. As such, the hypothesis that humans are genetically derived from a single ancestral pair in the recent past has no support from a genomics perspective, and, indeed, is counter to a large body of evidence.[1]
In addition, the fossil evidence detailing the existence of anatomically modern human fossils as long ago as 200,000 years (let alone the evidence showing large-scale evolutionary change in the human lineage) is unarguable.[2] Any discussion of the Bible-Science interface which ignores these facts is as I have said before in serious trouble. I am not trying to be polemical, but the blunt truth is that we’re talking about facts as incontrovertible as heliocentrism, and privileging a literal reading of a few Bible verses, particularly when no attempt is made to justify this hermeneutic will not make those facts vanish. Anyway, on to the verses. All my quotes are from the NRSV unless otherwise stated.
 Acts 14:15-17 “Friends, why are you doing this? We are mortals just like you, and we bring you good news, that you should turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them.  In past generations he allowed all the nations to follow their own ways; yet he has not left himself without a witness in doing good—giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, and filling you with food and your hearts with joy.”
Well, there’s no reference here to the age of the earth or the specific mechanism of creation. It refers to God as creator, and that’s it. As someone who regards the witness of geology, astronomy, palaeontology and comparative genomics as faithful and reliable, this means that the mechanism by which God created is more or less the mechanism elucidated by modern science. Again, remember that the Bible is not a science text, and is more concerned with inculcating theology, even if it means accommodating existing human ideas on how this occurred.
Acts 17:24-27 The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us.
The first thing that needs to be recognized is that the Greek text does not say “from one man”. What it does say is ‘from one he made all nations to inhabit the earth’. That leaves open the question of whether it is one ancestral group, or one person. Again, it’s critical to avoid reading into dated translations preconceived meanings, otherwise we won’t be rightly dividing the word of truth.

Paul is speaking to Greeks who did not share his understanding of Old Testament writings, therefore we need to avoid reading this exchange with the Genesis narrative in mind. Paul not infrequently used the writings of the Greek poets and philosophers to make a point, and this is where we will make progress:

Acts 17
Greek / Roman Parallels
he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live. – v 26
‘For you have thought it over while paying very little attention to this, namely, that a portion of land has been properly set aside for human habitation as well as for space for use relating to the sentient gods.[3]

so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him – v27
‘For nothing is better than to search for the true God, even if the discovery of him eludes human capacity.[4]

though indeed he is not far from each one of us.
‘With him, with Zeus, are filled all paths we tread, and all the marts of men; Filled, too, the sea, and every creek and bay’.[5]
‘God is near you, he is with you, he is within you.[6]
For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’
‘For in him we live and move and have our being[7]
‘since from you we have our being.[8]

‘For we too are his offspring.’
‘And we are his offspring.[9]

we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals.
a god is not made with stone, don't you know that God is not made with hands?'[10]

Note that Paul is not afraid to quote mythology in order to make a theological point. Citation of, or reference to a text does not automatically mean that one is also endorsing the world-view associated with it. The Greek audience would have in mind their myths in which humans were descendants of the gods. Needless to say, Paul is not endorsing this idea!

So, when Paul says ‘of one he made all nations’, this is not a reference to Adam, since Genesis was unknown to the audience. That interpretation needs to be abandoned right now. We need to interpret it in the Hellenistic worldview of the Greek audience, who did not think that humanity descended exclusively from one person.

The Greeks tended to view the world in terms of Greeks, and non-Greeks (barbarian). Inherent in this worldview needless to say is an element of racial superiority, with Greeks seeing themselves as superior to other races. Not all Greeks thought this way, with some arguing that all humans, be they Greek, Roman, Jew or whatever, were all members of the same human family, and it is this which Paul is appealing to.

The theological point Paul makes here can be seen clearly in Galatians 3:27-29:
As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.
This unity is not dependent on universal human descent exclusively from Adam, needless to say. Any reading of Acts 17 contingent on this has missed Paul’s point.

The book of nature is a divine revelation that declares an evolving creation

In response to the compelling, overwhelming evidence for common descent and large-scale evolutionary change, one strategy used by evolution denialists has been to simply define out of existence this evidence by declaring that only the Bible provides authoritative information on the question of origins. This is coupled with a downplaying or denial of the ‘two books of divine revelation’ view which argues that nature and the Bible are two complementary sources of divine revelation. Denial of the evidence does not make it go away, so this strategy makes as little sense as denying heliocentrism by appealing to the literal word of the Bible which declares that the sun rises, and the Earth is fixed, and declaring scientific information from astronomy illegitimate. Given the weight of evidence, such a strategy is purely an argument from desperation.

Furthermore, it ignores the fact that early Christadelphians not only believed in the ‘two books’ approach, but were more than happy to appeal to science to provide information on the age of the Earth, and the appearance of life on it. As early as 1837, John Thomas explicitly invoked the concept of the ‘two books of divine revelation in The Apostolic Advocate:
The Advocate: For the Testimony of God as it is Written in the Books of Nature and Revelation CONDUCTED BY JOHN THOMAS, M.D. The invisible attributes of God, even his eternal power and divinity, since the creation of the world, are very evident; being known by his works.—PAUL.
All scripture given by divine inspiration, is profitable for doctrine, for conviction, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: that the man of God may be perfect—completely fitted for every good work.—PAUL.
Such is the title, by which this work will be designated, on the publication of the Fourth Volume. “The Advocate” is its present name, and will continue so to be. The rest of its title is expletive of the subject-matter for which it pleads, viz. THE TESTIMONY OF GOD. The grand divisions of this testimony are twofold—first the evidence he has given of his Eternal Power, and Divinity in what is termed Nature; and, secondly, that which is contained in the Historical Books and the Law of Moses, the Prophets, the Psalms, and the Apostolic Writings.
The First, or Natural division of the Testimony of God, contains all, and infinitely more, than can be found in the Encyclopædia of human discoveries:—hence, the principles and facts, which have resulted from the observations and experiments of accurate observers, will arrest the attention of THE ADVOCATE from time to time. Our design in doing this, is, that the works of God may be brought to bear illustratively on his word; for, we are convinced, that nothing is better calculated to break the shackles of prejudice and superstition, than an enlightened acquaintance with the objects and “laws of Nature,” as God’s natural institutions are termed.
The second division of the Testimony of God, relates equally to Man and the External World of Nature, only that it reveals the ultimate destiny of both; and the extraordinary arrangements, by which they are to be carried onward to that glorious result; which the inaudible, though expressive, (see. ps. 19.) works of God do not.—THE ADVOCATE will, therefore, exercise himself to the best of his ability and judgment, in setting forth the manifold wisdom of God as inscribed on the brilliant pages of those two interesting volumes.[11] (Emphasis mine)
Specific examples where early Christadelphians appealed to reason, logic, and evidence to support a view which ran counter to a literal reading of the Bible abound. One of the more celebrated is that of Robert Roberts’ use of the biogeographical distribution of life to argue against a global flood:
Considering the comparatively limited extent of the human family at the time, and that it was confined to one small district of the globe, it would seem reasonable to conclude from the principle already looked at-the divine sparingness of means-that the flood was co-extensive only with the Adamically-inhabited portion of the globe. There are facts that compel such a conclusion: and as all facts are of God, they must be in agreement. The animals of New Zealand are different from those of Australia. The animals of Australia, again, are different from those of Asia and Europe. These again differ entirely from those of the American continent: All differ from one another: and the fossil remains on all the continents show that this difference has always prevailed. Now if the flood were universal in the absolute sense, it is manifest that these facts could not be explained, for if the animals all over the earth were drowned, and the devastated countries were after-wards replenished from a Noachic centre, the animals of all countries would now show some similarity, instead of consisting of totally different species. The animals taken into the ark in that case would be the animals of the humanly populated district. Only a comparatively small district in relation to the face of the world at large.[12] (Emphasis mine)
While the palaeoanthropological evidence shows that the flood was anthropologically and geographically local, given that the human race was already widely spread around nearly all the world 5000 years ago, Roberts’ point remains sound, and with it the principle that hard physical evidence can and does trump literal readings of the Bible, even if they impact on questions related to the origins of our race. It is telling that even in an article which sought to refute Darwin and Huxley, Roberts nonetheless acknowledged:
Revelation does not give a scientific cosmology. That lies outside its province…Revelation does not enter into the mysteries of molecular physics, or the development of the life-germ, or the way in which it operates on material organisms. All these it relegates to science, whose function it is to investigate them.[13] (Emphasis mine)
While the two books of revelation are complementary, meaning that one is not going to gain a systematic theology from molecular biology and quantum physics, this does not mean that theological error cannot be corrected by facts from the natural world. In fact, Robert Roberts specifically appealed to medical facts to argue against the immortality of the soul:
The mind is the offspring of the brain, and is therefore affected by all its passing disorders.

Let us carry the process further. Let the brain be injured, and we then perceive a most signal refutation of the popular idea the mind vanishes altogether. The following extract illustrates: ­
Richmond mentions the case of a woman whose brain was exposed in consequence of the removal of a considerable part of its bony covering by disease. He says, "I repeatedly made a pressure on the brain, and each time suspended all feeling and all intellect, which were immediately restored when the pressure was withdrawn". The same writer mentions another case. He says, "There was a man who had to be trepanned, and who perceived his intellectual faculties failing, and his existence drawing to a close, every time the effused blood collected upon the brain so as to produce pressure".

PROF. CHAPMAN, in one of his letters, says, "I saw an individual with his skull perforated and the brain exposed, who was accustomed to submit his brain to be experimented upon by pressure, and who was exhibited by the late Prof. Weston to his class. His intellect and moral faculties disappeared on the application of pressure to the brain. They were held under the thumb, as it were, and restored at pleasure to their full activity by discontinuing the pressure".

But of all facts, the following related by SIR ASTLEY COOPER, in his surgical lectures, is the most remarkable: “A man of the name of Jones received an injury on his head while on board a vessel in the Mediterranean, which rendered him insensible. The vessel soon after made for Gibraltar, where Jones was placed in the hospital, and remained several months in the same insensible state. He was carried on board the Dolphin frigate to Deptford, and from thence was sent to St. Thomas's Hospital, London. He lay constantly on his back, and breathed with difficulty. When hungry or thirsty he moved his lips or tongue. Mr. Clyne, the surgeon, found a portion of the skull depressed, trepanned him, and removed the depressed portion. Immediately after this operation, the motion of his fingers, occasioned by the beating of the pulse, ceased, and in three hours he sat up in bed, sensation and volition returned, and in four days he got up out of his bed and conversed. The last thing he remembered was the occurrence of taking a prize in the Mediterranean. From the moment of the accident, thirteen months and a few days before, oblivion had come over him, all recollection ceased. Yet, on removing a small portion of bone which pressed upon the brain, he was restored to the full possession of the powers of his mind and body”.
These cases are not in accordance with the popular theory of the mind. Here is suspension of mental action on the derangement of the material organisation. Obviously, the mind is not the attribute of a principle existing independently of that organisation. The facts show that thinking is dependent upon the action of the brain, and cannot, therefore, be the action of an immaterial principle, which could never be affected by any material condition.[14] (Emphasis mine)
The evidence that our community accepted both the concept of the ‘two books of revelation’ and were more than happy to appeal to it both to understand details about natural history and to refute theological error is clear. Likewise, they recognised the perils inherent in an overly literal reading of the creation narratives. C.C. Walker pointed out that “Moses’ testimony is not so “plain” that it cannot be misinterpreted or misunderstood[15] while providing one example of the contradictions arising when applying a literal reading to the creation narrative:
As to “the fourth day,” we do not know of any “day” in the literal sense apart from the sun and its motion. And, therefore, if the “days” of Genesis 1. are to be taken as literal days, we feel bound to admit the sun as the origin of the “light,” and “evening and morning” that were the characteristics of “the first day.” How can you have “evening and morning” without the sun? We must settle up “the plain testimony” of verse 5 with that of verses 14–19.[16]
Finally, Walker acknowledged that if the scientific evidence confirmed that ancient forms of life were ancestral to modern forms, we would need to alter our understanding of the creation narrative:
If we suppose a sudden and absolute break some 6,000 years ago, or before, resulting in the destruction of all life, and that the creation account of Genesis describes a new creation following, we ought to find some evidence of the break, and we cannot well account for the apparently close relationship that obtains between extinct and existing forms. There are forms becoming extinct in our own day from slow and natural causes. May it not have been so in pre-Adamic times? The professors tell us for instance that some of these ancient birds, whose strides we can see for ourselves from their footprints were from four to six feet long, were like gigantic ostriches.
Supposing that it were ever established that they were the actual progenitors of our smaller forms (“There were giants in the earth in those days” might apply to birds and beasts), would the credibility of the Mosaic narrative suffer? Not at all, in our estimation. We should indeed have to revise somewhat our interpretation of the brief cosmogony of Gen. 1.; but should not waver as concerning its divinity, nor await with less faith and patience the reappearance of Moses in the land of the living.[17] (Emphasis mine)
The evidence that ancient life was ancestral to modern life is of course no longer an issue in the scientific world given the overwhelming evidence in favour of common descent, and if we were true to this spirit of intellectual honesty exemplified by C.C. Walker, we would be well on our way towards revising our interpretation of the cosmogony of Genesis 1, to ensure its consistency with the witness of the natural world. The retreat into fideism and fundamentalism as seen by the anti-evolutionists in our community is deeply disturbing.

[1] Venema D “Genesis and the Genome: Genomics Evidence for Human-Ape Common Ancestry and Ancestral Hominid Population Sizes” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith (2010) 62:166-178
[2] Cartmill, Matt; Smith, Fred H. The Human Lineage (Foundation of Human Biology) (2009: Wiley)
[3] Philo (Greecian Jew), ‘On Abraham’ (2.74), 1st century CE. 
[4] Philo, ‘The Special Laws’, 1st century CE 
[5] Aratus (Greek poet), ‘Phaenomena’, 3rd century BCE
[6] Seneca the Younger (Roman philosopher), ‘Letters’, 1st century CE. 
[7] Epimenides of Knossos (Greek philosopher), ‘Cretica’, 6th century BCE. 
[8] Cleanthes of Assos (Greek philosopher), ‘Hymn to Zeus’, 4th century BCE. 
[9] Aratus (Greek poet), ‘Phaenomena’, 3rd century BCE. 
[10] Pseudo-Heraclitus, ‘Letters’, c. 5th century BCE.
[11] Thomas J, The Apostolic Advocate (1837) 3:260-261
[12] Roberts, ‘The Visible Hand of God’, The Christadelphian (1881) 18:308
[13] Roberts, 'The Bible True; Darwin and Huxley Refuted’, The Christadelphian (1876) 13:157,158.
[14] Roberts R Christendom Astray From The Bible (1884 Ed) p 42-43
[15] Walker C.C. “Is it ‘Wrong’ to Believe That the Earth is a Sphere?’ The Christadelphian (1913) 50:348
[16] Ibid, p 348
[17] Walker C.C. “Genesis”, The Christadelphian (1910) 47:501