Dr Alexander gives Cathedral science lecture
Eminent scientist Dr Denis Alexander gave an open lecture at Norwich Cathedral on Tuesday March 8 where he shared his views on human evolution using contemporary scientific research and biblical study.
Lecture review by Nick Brewin and Patrick Richmond
Over 200 people filled Norwich Cathedral on 8th March to hear a scientist’s view of how to reconcile what is known about human evolution with what we understand about human origins from the Book of Genesis. Using contemporary scientific research and biblical scholarship, Dr Denis Alexander helped his audience to untangle the strands of reality, myth and symbolism that surround the Biblical figure of Adam.
Dr Alexander began by reviewing some of the recent scientific discoveries about the origins and evolution of the human race. Based on evidence from the fossil record, together with DNA profiling, it is probable that our last common ancestor with chimpanzees lived in Africa about 6 million years ago. Between then and now, ten distinct species of hominid have evolved and gradually spread around the world.
The earliest known fossil of our own species, Homo sapiens, lived in Ethiopia some 200,000 years ago. Characteristically, it had a skull with a very large brain-box. From about 60,000 years ago, members of this species started to spread out from Africa and into Eurasia. Although there was a certain amount or interbreeding (gene exchange) with pre-existing hominids such as the Neanderthals, these species gradually died out and were replaced by contemporary human beings. Significantly, Dr Alexander noted that the genetic evidence does not fit with the idea of a single couple who are the originators of all of humankind.
The emergence of humankind through biological evolution occurred over an enormous span of geological time – of the order of millions of years. As a result of evolution by natural selection, humankind with its enormous brain has acquired the power to think, speak, write and use a range of tools in ways not previously seen in any other living creature. And so begins the fascinating process of cultural evolution – the evolution of ideas, which we can chart through the last few thousand years of human history.
In the light of the evolution narrative, how should the Book of Genesis be interpreted? Dr Alexander quoted Kenneth Bailey in saying that “The early chapters of Genesis are like a collection of theological essays”. He then noted that the Jewish theologian Philo of Alexandria (20 BC – 50 AD) was already teaching that the days of creation, Adam, Eve, and the Garden of Eden were all “intended symbolically rather than literally”, being “no mythical fictions…but modes of making ideas visible”. Subsequently figurative interpretations of Genesis have been mainstream, from St Augustine (354 – 410 AD) to Calvin and long before modern science emerged. Dr Alexander thus sees “Young Earth Creationism”, which interprets the Biblical stories as rivals to modern science, as mistaken. Rather, the Biblical stories about Adam were rivals to the religious myths current in their ancient context.
In Genesis Chapter 1, the word ‘Adam’ means ‘humankind’. More than that, we are told that humankind, Adam and Eve, were created in the ‘image of God’. Obviously, this is not scientific writing (modern science came two thousand years later), but it is a radical theological and political text.
Why radical? Because, in its context of Ancient Near-Eastern political structures, the king exercised absolute power and the rest of humanity were just serfs. Society was highly stratified and unequal, such that only kings and male priests were said to be ‘in the image of God’. Now the Genesis manifesto is saying that everyone equally, female and male, are made in the image of God. Such a high view of all humanity was revolutionary in the Greco-Roman world, which regularly practiced infanticide.
The radical Genesis manifesto continues to be relevant today and can be said to have motivated such important reformers as Nelson Mandela, William Wilberforce; Mother Theresa and Marie Curie, to name but a few. The God-given idea of humanity created in God’s image has led to the abolition of slavery, medical care, universal education and more generally the justification of human rights.
Genesis Chapter 2 uses the word ‘Adam’ with a somewhat different nuance. This time Adam is the archetypal representative of Man partnered with Eve, the archetypal Woman. Together, Adam and Eve model some key characteristics of what being made in the image of God is all about: caring for the earth, naming the animals (‘science’) and having a family. And, as the narrative continues into the concept of sin and human disobedience, we find (in Genesis 3) that they make a big mess of their responsibilities by following their own wisdom rather than God’s – just as we do today in our present societal and environmental crises.
What about the mentions of Adam in the New Testament? They are mostly in the context of discussing the roots of human sin. This fits with the idea of Adam as a symbolic representative of us all, sinners as we all are.
Thus, Dr Alexander argues that the evolution story provided by biology and the creation story provided by theology are two complementary narratives. While the evolutionary narrative, provides an account of how God created the world and humankind, the theological narrative, provides an account of why God did it.
However, a couple of questions remain. First, at what point in the evolution of humankind did people become responsible to God in such a way that they could be judged by God for their actions? In other words: when did sin begin? Second, at what point did a community of faith become established in which people worshipped the one true God? Dr Alexander noted that these modern questions were not the ones that the Bible was written to answer, so we are left with theological speculation. One approach emphasizes the symbolic nature of Adam, but another, associated for example with John Stott, tries to interpret him as an influential and representative ancestor of the Jewish faith, locating him in the Near East during the Neolithic period. Dr Alexander discusses such questions more in his book, “Creation or Evolution: Do we have to choose?” ISBN: 978-0-85721-578-9, Monarch Books.
This was the eighth Annual Cathedral Lecture organised by “Science Faith Norfolk” (SFN) a local group of scientists and theologians affiliated to Christians in Science.
The next SFN Open Meeting will be held on Monday 16th May 7.30 – 8.45 pm at Trinity Meeting Place, Essex St., NR2 2BJ. Professor Russell Cowburn, FRS (Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge) will talk on “Nanoscience: A new aspect of God’s creation”.
Contact: Prof Nick Brewin, Secretary, Science Faith Norfolk: 07901 884114 firstname.lastname@example.org.