When Clifford Goldstein discusses evolution as he has done many times in the Adventist Review, he always speaks in monolithic terms (1). On a topic where evidence cries out for nuance, I have seen none offered. However, I must confess that this is actually very similar to the way I was reared to think about the subject—evolutionism unequivocally on one side of the equation, creationism on the other side, and never the twain shall meet.
Some of this monolithic thinking is traceable to Ellen White, the most significant shaper of Adventist thought on the subject, and such treatment may be part of the problem for us today in coming to terms with the evidence. While a monolithic approach may have been excusable in the nineteenth century, such treatment is no longer tenable with our increased understanding of the DNA digital code, genetics, genomics, and speciation. In fact, there are many aspects of the evolutionary model that have been strengthened—not weakened—by time, and therefore calls out for some careful rethinking (2).
One way to retain sensitivity for the traditional Adventist perspective is to bifurcate our consideration of this topic—evolution as contrasted with origins, for they are two very different considerations. By separating these two issues, we are enabled to keep God at center stage in the biological picture, because even though the evidence for the mechanism of evolution via mutation and natural selection is quite compelling, it does not resolve the issue of biological origins.
What I would like to do in this and the next few essays is to sort out some of the issues that surround this complex subject and develop the outlines for a new Adventist paradigm. There are parts of the evolutionary process that are speculative and there are parts, to put it simply, that are established fact. We therefore need to quit talking in monolithic terms and admit this truth.
If we were to give this topic full treatment we would need to have a discussion of Gregor Mendel, his pea experiments, and the discovery that hereditary traits are passed on to later generations expressing themselves as dominant or recessive in nature. However for the sake of brevity, I would like to leap over to a discussion of how these traits modify over time. Breeders know a lot about this mechanism, as they select the traits they want to generate in succeeding generations. If you want to create a faster racehorse, it is necessary to breed the best and fastest horses with each other, with incremental improvements occurring with each successive generation. Such principles apply to all other forms of artificial breeding, each with differing end-strategies.
In nature, change occurs naturally, through mutation and natural selection.
Mutation, which generally is known by the technical name “single nucleotide polymorphism,” is characterized by DNA code copying errors. While some errors can be beneficial, generally they are either benign or deleterious. Those that are deleterious predispose a person to a number of maladies. Mutations—beneficial or deleterious—not only can get passed on to succeeding generations, but confer corresponding advantages/disadvantages that modify the genetic social make up over time.
Natural selection, the mechanism most often associated with evolution, is really nothing more than nature selecting those advantages (traits) that optimize survivability. A brown rabbit on a brown landscape is more likely to survive potential demise by predators than a white rabbit on a brown landscape; likewise a fast rabbit will have survival advantages. Consequently, over time these surviving traits begin to dominate. The outlines of the evolutionary mechanism are all as simple as that.
Changes within a species, over an extended period of time, where presented with varying unique environmental challenges will tend to evolve in whatever direction the local realities dictate, and over the span of quite a few generations the change can become so profound that a new species is born. Many Adventist scientists, with whom I am familiar, including those supportive of the general creation narrative, acknowledge this.
Now the question becomes, “Can we go farther than this in our conclusions?” For example, can the evolutionary model explain biological family groupings (e.g., birds vs. dogs vs. cats, etc.)? This remains more of an open question. Certainly there are many evidentiary gaps between family lines from the fossil record. However, if the evolutionary track does cross family lines, the definitive answer probably rests in a more complete understanding of the DNA digital code, which can be anticipated to come at some point in the future.
Some readers will likely be dismissive of everything stated so far, so it may be time for a reality check. The traditional creationist view is that the ancestors of every land mammal in existence lived at one time on Noah’s Ark. This raises the compelling question as to why some of the most unique animals on Earth often reside only locally and very far away from where the Ark landed. Consider the marsupials, such as the kangaroo, found in only one place on the face of the Earth. From the creationist model, the kangaroo leaves the Ark and instead of spreading out across the Earth, as we would expect, they somehow all end up in Australia. We must therefore query as to how this came about? Every creationist proposal I have seen seems inadequate to nonexistent. Yet mutation and/or natural selection can render a logical and quite compelling explanation for this phenomenon.
The evidence is rather overwhelming for the processes of change occurring through mutation and natural selection, and most scientifically literate Adventists will not find this discussion controversial. It explains everything from drug-resistant bacteria to the wide biological variations found throughout the world, including locally unique variations. While there are voices still talking in monolithic terms, the evidence is telling us that it is time for a smarter discussion.
Our duty must be to seek convergence between traditional understandings of Genesis and the factual realities. This is the attitude of Present Truth, and should be the basis for common ground.
Jan M. Long, J.D., M.H.A., works for the County of Riverside, California.
Image: M. C. Escher, Metamorphosis II (3 joined sheets), 1939-40.
Read all the previous articles in this series: The Search for Common Ground on Genesis.