Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Genesis (Not the band)

The Book of Genesis is the first of the Five books of the Hebrew Torah in which the author recounts, among others, the story of the creation of the World by Jehovah. The story includes many of the perceptions of the world from its era and location; for example, the sky is seen as a firmament or dome, parting the “upper waters” from the oceans, and the creation of Humans from dust, both comparable with contemporary Greek, Egyptian and Babylonian creation myths. While it might be expected that we, as a species would have collectively moved on from these simplistic views, sadly a disturbing number of people in the Western World, despite the immense scientific evidence amassed since the 19th Century, still hold this text to be an accurate account of the history of our world.

At least some forty percent of Americans believe that the world was created according to this text, somewhere between 6,000 and 10,000 years ago, in spite of radiometric dating of the oldest rocks on earth (indicating how much these rocks have decayed atomically) and microwave background measurements (light travelling through space since the Big Bang) which place the age of the Earth and the Universe respectively at 4.6 billion and 13.7 billion years old. The number of Europeans is considerably lower by most accounts, but still embarrassingly high. In 2006, a poll in the United Kingdom found that twenty-two percent of respondents professed a belief in Creationism, and seventeen percent in Creationism-by-another-name, otherwise known as “Intelligent Design”. Only a little over half of the respondents accepted that Natural Selection was responsible for the development and diversity of life.

There are two important questions here; why do these people believe these things, and is there any merit to their beliefs? The Science in these fields is well established; life originated from organic molecules (although the exact mechanism of abiogenesis has yet to be established or replicated) and then diversified and adapted to survive in an astounding number of ways. The Universe began to expand 13.7 billion years ago, and while what happened before that is unknown to us, we’ve filled a great number of gaps between then and now; Hydrogen clouds formed in the Big Bang coalesced into Stars, and as they died the debris from supernovae formed the heavier elements, which over time, accreted to form planets, you, me, and all life on Earth.

So, while the second question can be answered with an upfront “no” and I’ll elaborate on it later, why on earth do people believe these things? Well, although I hate to take personal experiences into these things, I will state that I have yet to meet a Creationist (out of the three or so I’ve actually discussed this topic with) who actually understood what Natural Selection is. They have a tendency to believe a misconception about Charles Darwin’s 1859 On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection; Usually that they think that the theory states that the complex life we see today sprung into existence ex nihilo. Feel free to take a moment to laugh at that. Creationism proposes that all life sprang into existence from nothing, but because they say “God did it” that makes it less ridiculous in their minds than a misunderstanding of a scientific theory. In essence, they believe that the book proposes a theory of abiogenesis, and this could not be further from the truth. In his lifetime, Darwin only ventured as far as to speculate about the conditions of abiogenesis;

It is often said that all the conditions for the first production of a living organism are present, which could ever have been present. But if (and Oh! what a big if!) we could conceive in some warm little pond, with all sorts of ammonia and phosphoric salts, light, heat, electricity, etc., present, that a protein compound was chemically formed ready to undergo still more complex changes, at the present day such matter would be instantly devoured or absorbed, which would not have been the case before living creatures were formed.

But he was aware that the science of his era was not nearly able to tackle such an immense question. Natural Selection, often known as Evolution, is the process by which life adapts and changes over time. The theory doesn’t cover the origin of life, but rather the origin of the immense diversity of life. Darwin, and the co-discoverer of the theory, Alfred Wallace came to their conclusions after years of hard work, travel and observation of diverse forms of life. So, how did the author(s) of Genesis come to the conclusions which they came to? Divine revelation? Pshaw.

In all probability, Genesis was the product of an earlier Oral tradition, perhaps even several different traditions, which I have no doubt is related to the stories of contemporary societies in the Near-East. In a strange move for a monotheistic religion, God has an unusual habit of referring to himself in the first-person-plural ( Let us make man in our image, after our likeness ). Earlier in the narrative, the term Elohim “Gods”, is used to refer to God, but later he undergoes a name change to the more familiar name Yahweh. Interestingly, the Canaanites, another Semitic society had in their pantheon two deities, also known as Yahweh and El. Perhaps the story was a synthesis of several earlier narratives, and when it was codified the scribes decided to be mumpsimuses and not alter the polytheistic references. The Story of Adam and Eve bears a remarkable similarity to Mesopotamian Epic He who saw the Deep, or Gilgamesh which recounts the story of the wild man Enkidu, who after having sex with a Temple-prostitute, is feared by the animals he once hunted with, and said to be wise and “like a god”. Sound familiar? If you read the Epic of Gilgamesh, you’ll see that the chances of the Bible being either Holy Writ or divinely inspired are somewhere between “slim” and “none”.

Taking a moment to justify my earlier “no”, it’s plain to see that these archaic beliefs hold no merit. We have developed numerous theories which account for much that was unknown to us in the Bronze Age, and if new evidence comes to light, contradicting earlier evidence, (Rabbits in the Precambrian, or the like) then we’ll change our theories to suit the new facts, once again illustrating the difference between Science and Religion; Science has no holy unalterable text, no divine laws, science is the pursuit of knowledge, religion is the pursuit of fantasy. Essentially these people reject reality because they’re kept in the dark, either by parents, teachers, preachers, themselves, or a combination of the four, and don’t even know what the facts are. Anyone who has looked at the “arguments” against Natural Selection will see that they’re entirely based on a misconception of the theory, one of the most hilarious being “Well then why have we never seen a monkey give birth to a man?”. Aquinas would be proud.


  1. Wow I never realised creationism existed in any sort of significant numbers in Europe.

  2. I should probably add that I subsequently found out that the survey was only on a group of 2000;

    There is a movement in the UK to force it onto the curriculum, in fact a few years ago they seriously considered putting a question about it on the GCSE Biology paper.

    That said, there'll always be a resistance against this kind of nonsense. The likes of Richard Dawkins and the Gnu Atheists won't take it lying down.

  3. Eugenie Scott - - was talking about creationism the world over in her talk at QEDCon - - and nowhere is immune. There's a creationist theme park in England somewhere I think. Or maybe it's on the way... but silly thinking is everywhere -

    Sigh. :)

    Good post on Genesis!

  4. Thanks Donal. I've had the displeasure of meeting a handful of Irish Creationists. My strategy is to explain what natural selection is and it essentially stumps them for about ten seconds before they ignore it and launch into a "But then why are there gaps in the Fossil record?" soliloquy.