Research can reconstrue the meaning of 'creation'

Monday, July 24th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Science can smash atoms, send people into space and reveal the secrets of the stars. But it can't buy a stairway to heaven.

As Cardinal Caesar Baronius said in Galileo's day, it was the Bible's job to show how to go to heaven. It was science's task, Galileo emphasized, to show how the heavens go.

Yet for all its power, science cannot enforce this division of labor in a culture gripped by religious belief. Though eminent scientists and theologians alike proclaim harmony between their domains, religion and science remain estranged. As the diamond anniversary of the Scopes trial passes, the rhetoric surrounding that court case echoes today in the media, schools, legislatures and laboratories.

As they did 75 years ago, scientists argue that the best evidence strongly supports the evolution of life's species from a common ancestor. Advocates of special creation – of life, Earth and the universe – say that Scripture denies standard science and seek to substitute a science of their own.

In disputes of this nature, sometimes it's helpful to consult the wisdom of the ancients, or at least the insight of musical philosophers from a bygone generation. When buying a stairway to heaven, sang Led Zeppelin, you have to be careful when reading the signs. Because you know sometimes words have two meanings.

And the signs from science since the Scopes trial convey a similar truth: Sometimes, two words have the same meaning. It may be that the message of 20th-century science is that creation and evolution are one and the same.


Science explores the workings of the natural world and the processes of life. If a God did in fact create life and the world – "all of creation" – then science might well be construed as a religious quest, as a way of understanding just what God created. In fact, most of the founders of modern science viewed their undertaking in just that way.

"Many early scientists believed they were 'thinking God's thoughts after him,'" writes Ian Barbour, a professor of both physics and religion at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn.

But nowadays most scientists divorce their work from religion. As the biologist Stephen Jay Gould contends, science and religion each use a different language for describing the world. They are "separate magisteria," he says – non-overlapping domains of expertise: "science in the empirical constitution of the universe, and religion in the search for proper ethical values and the spiritual meaning of our lives." In fact, many scientists take Dr. Gould's division to the extreme, denying any relevance of religion to the natural world. In a similar way, some creationists reject virtually all of modern biology, geology and astrophysics. Standard science is wrong, they say, and the Bible, read literally, is right.

But many observers of science and religion see the situation otherwise.

"Between these extremes have been many scientists and theologians who have believed in both evolution and God," Dr. Barbour writes in his new book, When Science Meets Religion.

"Today the popular image of 'the warfare of science and religion' is perpetuated by the media," he writes. "A controversy is more dramatic than the subtle and discriminating positions between the extremes of scientific materialism and biblical literalism."

The Bible should be taken seriously but not literally, Dr. Barbour advises. And he rejects the rigid separation of science from religion. He prefers a mix of "dialog" and "integration" between the two.

"We cannot remain content with science and religion as unrelated languages," he writes, "if they are languages about the same world."

So if science and religion are really about the same things, then perhaps the evolution-creation controversy can be reshaped in a manner suggesting reconciliation.


Among leading biologists, the fact of life's evolution is not in dispute. The fossil evidence is clear that forms of life around today weren't always around, and that many forms of life that lived long ago aren't around today.

In 1859, Charles Darwin explained the changing diversity of life as the inevitable result of "natural selection" – or "survival of the fittest." Organisms are born with differences. Differences make some organisms more likely to survive and reproduce. Over time and many generations, differences accumulate and new species appear.

Later, scientists discovered the work of Gregor Mendel, a monk who figured out how traits are passed from one generation to the next. Hereditary features are transmitted from parents to offspring by genes. Mutations and mixing of genes from parents give offspring new hereditary features.

Midway through the 20th century, scientists discovered that genes are made of the twisted molecule known as DNA. The discovery of DNA's structure showed how Darwinian evolution worked. The basic process has been tested and demonstrated now many times, by such methods as mixing DNA in the lab, doing computer simulations, and growing bacteria under different conditions.

None of that evidence was available during the Scopes trial, when a high school teacher was convicted of teaching evolution. But the scientific evidence didn't really matter, either in the trial or the court of public opinion, where revulsion to evolution stemmed largely from variants on an inopportune slogan: "Your grandfather was a monkey." A lot of people didn't want to believe that they were descended from apes, or at least didn't want to think of it in that way.

Since then science has found evidence for a much better evolution slogan – namely, "All life is related." In fact, virtually all life is very closely related, much closer than even Darwin would have guessed. Species as diverse as yeast, roundworms, fruit flies, mice, and people all possess many common genes, similar in structure, that do the same job. Mapping all the human genes, and comparing them to maps of other creatures' genes, spells out the evidence for evolution in clear language.

Yet creationists persist. They cannot conceive of natural processes producing life forms of such majestic complexity. Scientists have repeatedly shown, though, that many natural systems organize themselves into complex structures. Snowflakes are elegant ornaments, not globs of mush. Even biological complexity seems to be an inevitable outcome of the natural interplay of simple chemicals, as modern computer simulations have demonstrated.


Ask Sanjay Jain, of the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore and the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico. At a recent symposium in Santa Fe, he described a computer model of a network of molecules, representing simple chemicals floating in a primordial pond.

For life to begin, something has to get these molecules to cooperate. But there is no need for magic in Dr. Jain's model – just the chemical trick known as catalysis. Some substances, by their mere presence, help other chemicals get together to make a new one. Sometimes the new one helps to make more of the original substance.

If a substance speeds up chemical reactions that make more of itself, it stands a good chance of becoming abundant. In the primordial pond of life, then, the most common chemicals would be those that enjoyed the benefit of such self-catalysis. Ultimately, computer simulations show, a whole set of molecules will emerge in which each catalyzes the production of another.

"A highly structured chemical organization arises inevitably," Dr. Jain and his colleague Sandeep Krishna write in a paper on the World Wide Web at

By self-catalysis, a set of chemicals can reproduce itself, the hallmark ability of life. The chemical network need only acquire a self-containing shell, like a primitive cell membrane, to act like an organism.

Life may not have begun in precisely that way. But Dr. Jain's math illustrates the principle that life could arise from simple molecules governed by basic chemistry.


Getting life started is one thing. Getting it to go somewhere is something else. How did the earliest life – simple, single-celled creatures like bacteria – sire descendants made of many cells of very different kinds? After all, the human body contains a couple of hundred different cell types, for blood and brain and heart and liver, skin and muscle and other organs and tissues. A single fertilized egg cell gives birth to all the members of this cellular zoo, just as life's original unicell evolved into fish, fowl, rattlesnakes and rats.

Once again, the growth of such complex life turns out to be inevitable. In the journal Physical Review Letters last month, two Japanese scientists showed that the math of cell division and growth reveals advantages in becoming multicellular.

Chikara Furusawa and Kunihiko Kaneko, of the University of Tokyo, imagined simple cells placed in a hypothetical pond of nutrient chemicals. Each cell conducts its own internal chemistry using 20 kinds of molecules.

In this model, a cell grows by swallowing edible molecules from the pond. Reactions in the cell's internal chemistry network convert the food into structural materials that make the cell bigger. Upon reaching twice its starting size, the cell divides to make two daughters. The daughters are virtually identical to the parent cell, with some slight random differences.

Over time, one original cell grows into a colony of cells. But whether that colony grows fast or slow depends on the nature of each cell's internal chemistry. The Japanese researchers tested 800 different designs of internal chemical networks; for most, the cells grew slowly and remained virtually identical. But for a few types of internal chemistry, the cells grew rapidly. In those fast-growing cells, the tiny differences between two daughter cells get amplified, spawning entirely new cell types, performing different kinds of chemistry.

When cells grow slowly – and stay the same – the cells on the edge of the colony gobble up the food, and only they can grow and divide. But when fast-growing cells adopt new identities, thereby desiring different foods, outer cells will allow some nutrients to flow throughout the colony. Some cells divide, others don't, but the colony as a whole grows rapidly thanks to the benefits of diversification.

The lesson, say the Japanese scientists, is that simple cells are selfish. They can grow as individuals, but they cannot grow cooperatively. Ensembles of cells, containing a variety of types, outgrow colonies of simple cells. Thus ordinary evolution promotes the growth of complex, many-celled life forms, with no need for any design or control. It just happens, automatically, based on the simple rules of physics, chemistry and mathematics.

So complex life is not wildly unlikely. It is inevitable.


Creationists may continue to reject the notion of a natural origin and evolution of life. But many religious authorities, including Pope John Paul II, find evolution to be consistent with their beliefs.

"New knowledge has led to the recognition of the theory of evolution as more than a hypothesis," the pope declared in 1996. "It is indeed remarkable that this theory has been progressively accepted by researchers, following a series of discoveries in various fields of knowledge."

Of course, evolution of life is not the only issue wedged between science and religion. Biblical literalists insist that the Earth is young – a few thousand years old – and deny the birth of the universe in a big-bang explosion, billions of years ago.

Yet scientists can point to evidence that only the big bang explains. The light from that cosmic birth, for example, still hangs around, now cooled to barely warmer than absolute nothingness but still substantial enough to add to the static in a snowy TV picture.

Ironically, the big-bang theory sounds suspiciously similar to the creation account in Genesis – "Let there be light" seems like the logical command to initiate a cosmic fireball.

But the big-bang idea also enlarges the scope of evolution, to encompass not only life, but all of the universe. The heat of the initial explosion forged atoms that aggregated to form stars, which cooked up heavier atoms – such as the carbon required for life. A first generation of stars exploded, spewing life's ingredients into space, someday to surface on a planet (or planets) circling one of a new generation of stars.

Throughout all of time the universe's stars and galaxies coagulated and streamed through an ever-expanding space. The universe today is not what it was yesterday; all of "creation" constantly changes. In other words, creation is ongoing. Or evolving.

Here again, some religious scholars see consistency between Scripture and science. In the book of Genesis, the traditional translation asserts that "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." But the Revised Standard Version of the Bible offers a footnote giving an alternate translation that reads "when God began to create...."

From this biblical point of view, "creation" was not all at once, once and for all. Creation is ongoing. Or evolving. Evolution and creation are inseparable, and in a very serious sense they are one and the same.

Nevertheless, as Dr. Barbour and other theologians point out, the scientific knowledge of the cosmos also evolves, and it is clear that cosmic understanding at any point in time is always tentative. It is therefore unwise for religion to base its faith on any particular scientific idea. It is similarly unwise to appeal to a "god of the gaps" – invoking a deity to explain that which science cannot – for tomorrow science may find a natural explanation.

Science is, after all, perpetually uncertain, subject to change. It evolves. So as any Led Zeppelin scholar knows, you can't build the stairway to heaven with the substances of science. That stairway lies on the whisperin' wind.