Progressive Creationism: Notes on Jeff Cox's Work

Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is a grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.

        -- Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species, 1860, emphasis added

For the record, I have no reason to doubt that the universe is the billions of years old that physicists say it is. Further, I find the idea of common descent (that all organisms share a common ancestor) fairly convincing, and have no particular reason to doubt it.

        -- Michael Behe, Darwin's Black Box

Despite some remaining puzzles, there’s no reason to doubt that Darwin had this point right, that all creatures on earth are biological relatives.

        -- Michael Behe, Edges of Evolution

(If you are here, you probably know that Dr. Behe was the only "intelligent design" advocate with scientific credentials who did not refuse, at the last minute, to testify under oath at the Kitzmiller trial.)

I have reviewed Jeff Cox's FAQ on creationism, which I enjoyed very much. It is not presently online but I hope it will return.

I am a mainstream Christian. I have followed the young-earth racket for many years. It is gratifying (for once) to see a self-described "creationist" who appears to possess both knowledge and integrity.

Cox's position, of course, is progressive creationism. He acknowledges an old earth and common descent (i.e., that human beings and chimpanzees share a long line of common, non-human physical ancestors).

What distinguishes Cox from an "evolutionist" is that he sees the Good Lord's hand in the process, and particularly in the origin of life. One is reminded of Charles Darwin's own remarks about the beginning of life in "The Origin of Species", and if Cox describes himself as a creationist, he might want to do the same for Mr. Darwin. (Has anyone done so? I'd like to hear about it.)

The current best-known anti-evolutionist, Philip Johnson, ("Darwin on Trial") presents a position similar to Cox's, though not so well-articulated. Johnson is not a scientist but an attorney. On his net postings, he is clearly evasive about whether he accepts the evidence for common descent (which is what most people probably mean by "evolution" and "Darwinism"). Mr. Johnson is quite willing to acknowledge an old earth. "Whether the process of creation took a single week or billions of years is relatively unimportant from a philosophical or theological standpoints. Creation by gradual processes over geological ages may create problems for Biblical interpretation, but it creates none for the basic principle of theistic religion." Like almost all creationists, Johnson redefines "Darwinism" as the belief that "science must assume that the cosmos is a closed system of material causes and effects, which can never be influenced by anything outside of nature", such as God, the human spirit, other spiritual powers, etc., etc. Likewise, Michael Behe is happy to admit that we have a non-human ancestor, and defines "Darwin's Black Box" as precellular chemical evolution -- which Darwin never believed in. (Darwin himself began as a man of strong faith Christian who was tormented through most of his life by the implications of his discovery. Re-read the "grandeur in this view of life" passage in "The Origin of Species." It seems shabby for Mr. Johnson and his friends to continue this misrepresentation.)

Cox is constrained by his commitment to Biblical literalism to describe Noah's ark as a "miracle", not obeying natural laws, and to consider that the ages of the first humans in our versions of Genesis might be copyists' errors. I suspect that more Christians now consider these things to be fiction. Cox's special pleading for Noah's ark will make his acceptance of common descent far more palatable for his fellow-literalists, though, and I thank him for it.

I have a couple of questions about "progressive creationism".

1. Finding a single gene in the human genome with no counterpart in animals would be proof (it seems to me) of progressive creationism. Has anybody at the American Scientific Affiliation thought of a way to undertake such a search? Are they perhaps even underway? (I'd be pleasantly surprised....)

2. If the Good Lord makes a practice of adjusting the genetic material in gametes, as Cox seems to be saying (correct me if I'm wrong), what do we say to the parents of a child with a grisly genetic disease? A person with cancer (which always results from the natural instability of the genome)? As a medical pathologist, I explain these situations as the price that we pay for the ability of our genes to mutate randomly. A stable genome would have left us literally in the (hot dilute) soup. I recall reading in the scientific literature about natural selection against species with too low a rate of mutation. If the Good Lord intended to direct creation by manipulating the genes, why not choose a far more stable system, and adjust it only for creatures' benefit? Don't cite "Adam's sin"; there must have been pre-Adamite apes with genetic diseases. If God regularly adjusts genes, why is there genetic disease (birth defects, cancer)? And the modern evolutionary synthesis is called "cruel"?

3. I wonder whether any progressive creationist has taken the position that, rather than adjusting base pairs in favored gametes, God protects the recipients of beneficial mutations and ensures their ability to breed. I doubt this; somebody would say, "This sounds like natural selection." But someone might, and this would not be logically inconsisant with progressive creationism.

4. Cox cites the often-alleged dichotomy between faith and naive naturalism, blaming the latter for contemporary ennui, meaninglessness, nastiness, and despair. As one who has worked the Fundamentalists Anonymous help service, I've seen both the great goodness and the incredible greed, meanness and hypocrisy which exist in the Religious Right milieu. It seems to make good people better and bad people far worse. The cruellest, most vicious people I've met have almost always been either "deeply religious conservatives" or shout-and-pout liberals. By contrast, ordinary people who are interested in science and in learning about the natural world as it really is are generally humane, clear-headed, and desirous of the health and happiness of others. Although I question whether our era is actually more wicked than the past, I share Cox's concern about contemporary culture. I would see religion and science as allies against superstition, cruelty, tyranny, and stupidity.

5. Cox's mind-body dualism (which I share, and which is unpopular among most Protestants) might be a sufficient answer to the creation-evolution problem for many Christians.

Henry Morris, in "Scientific Creationism", objected to progressive creationism because God would not have wanted to wait to create people, and would not have enjoyed fellowship with the "gliptodons". In the mid-1980's, one of the popular creationist writers told me in a letter that when Christ returns, every living animal will be blasted out of existence. I would hope he's wrong. While I'm writing this, I'm playing with my pet rat Alban, and the Psalmist says God plays with the whales (Psalm 104: 26).

While I'm not aware of any compelling reason in nature to choose Cox's synthesis over the parsimony of the "modern synthesis", it seems to me there are some open questions here, and that I can recommend his position to my religionist friends who are looking for something that fits the data.

I'll leave you to find the pseudo-Christian mudslingers-for-money sites on your own. Here are some decent sites which are at least partially sympathetic to progressive creationism:

American Scientific Affiliation

Even the young-earth organization "Answers in Genesis" has published a long list of creationist arguments that are lies and that should not be used. Click here. Creationst, cancer quack, anti-semite and convicted felon Kent Hovind is no longer part of the picture.

William Thwaites. This long-time creationist-buster is pleased to report that, among Evangelicals, "accomodation of evolution, rather than rejection, has been more the norm."

Is God Imaginary? -- conservative Christian site that freely acknowledges the fact of evolution and does not mention intelligent design. What's more, the principal proof of God's existence is the Big Bang.

Christian Answers Acknowlwedges the widespread popularity of Progressive Creationism in Evangelical circles. The site's primary objection is that animals could not have died until Adam sinned(!)

And finally, Talk-Origins. Nice review of the (in my opinion overwhelming) evidence for common descent and an old earth. Documents the massive and obviously-intentional deceptions by the young-earth creationists.

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