If you are truly confident about something, you welcome honest questions about it.
I am uncomfortable about this chapter because it zeros in on me, one human unimportant to the debate—but I have been advised to keep it in, to enable you to relate to me as a fellow traveller. My search to find our ultimate origins is a common one that you too might share.
We cannot answer “Who Am I?” until we know where we ultimately came from, and why.
In addition, many who have trained in Science have been unsettled about the Creation and Evolution dispute, which was resolved for me over forty years ago. However, similar questions continue to trouble some of my friends and fellow Christians, becoming one important impetus for me to take on the challenge of writing this book.
I grew up unchurched. Our family attended church I am told for weddings, funerals and christenings, but I don’t remember any of these occasions—except one. I have no memory of the church itself or the service, but it was a Greek Christening and afterwards we repaired to a hall where tables had been set with lavish food. I can still picture the bowls of coloured sugared almonds (pink and blue?) and sweet cakes. A deep and abiding impression had been made that church might be OK. A celebration that included special food. The way into a young boy’s heart…
At school, I enjoyed both Science and History, which was an unusual combination. I have changed little over the intervening years. I also won a writing competition as a teenager with an account of “Rocks on Hitchhike” describing the specimens I had collected during a hitchhiking tour of the African countryside in Rhodesia, now named Zimbabwe. How times have changed; not many contemporary parents would welcome their young son hitchhiking and sleeping rough wherever the fancy took him. An interest in rocks and Geology had been birthed, together with the satisfaction of putting pen to paper.
When it came to choosing subjects for university I chose the Sciences over History because the job opportunities seemed more varied and interesting. Geology and Chemistry were my majors. Chemistry? Unusual perhaps, but I wanted a deep knowledge about the composition of substances, including the rocks I collected, and no other subject gave that. I have never regretted studying it—you’d be surprised how many meals I have rescued in our kitchen because of knowing Chemistry! Food again—definitely a way into my heart.
At university in the sixties, I became dubious about Evolutionary Theory. In Geology, I could see the progressive changes within a given species in the fossils we examined, but was unconvinced by the lack of fossils linking one species to another. We were mainly studying marine fossils, and the supposition was that fish supposedly arose from natural selection occurring in simpler life forms such as sea squirts. A keen fisherman, I felt such radical changes would involve a large number of successful “link” fossils with characteristics between fish and, say, the ancestral sea squirts—which are a crude invertebrate life form that attaches to a rock on the rocky shoreline—but neither did I see these link fossils, nor did the literature of that era identify any of them.
Natural selection was considered by Charles Darwin to bring profound changes from one species to the next step-by-step in a slow progression. Thinking of the vertebrate fish I enjoyed catching, and eating, they were so different to a sea squirt that I found difficulty conceptualising what the link fossils would even look like. Sea squirt fossils had been found and likewise masses of fish fossils, but not as far as I could find out the hypothesised link fossils between sea squirts and fish. (Those were pre-Google days, so I tried again online recently–but still could not see any link fossils leading to fish!) Each of the link fossils would have survived, as I understood Darwinism, only if the changes it experienced had been favoured by the environmental conditions—so we might have expected masses of these successful new link fossils: not finding any of them made no sense to me.
My comprehension as a university student of what the Evolutionists were proposing was limited; but I am describing how I saw the problems at that phase. The same proved true for other supposed changes of one life form into another; there were too few if any successful link fossils. I was unconvinced. Nevertheless, I accepted the big picture of Darwinian Evolution, and began to read around the topic for additional insight about how this had actually happened.
Being the 1960s, the Watson and Crick model for the structure of DNA had been accepted, but its significance was in the infancy of understanding when applied to evolutionary theory. The variability within biological genetics, including the proposed contributions of epigenetics (external influences that affect genes) and of punctuated equilibrium (rapid change in life forms between long periods of little or no change), were at that juncture relatively understated or unknown—at least to the public and myself.
Because he was essentially the founding father of Evolutionary Theory, it was appropriate for me to read about Charles Darwin2 and some of the things he proposed. This was not done in a rush but in bits and pieces.
While not a committed Christian at that stage, I am now and have recently read some Christian material that denigrated Darwin and his conclusions. From reading Darwin’s own words, which most Christians have not done, I respect him as a meticulous and thoughtful Scientist. Scientists should be encouraged to put forward theories to try to explain observations they have made, even if their hypotheses prove unpopular. They and others then set about investigating to what extent these fledgling concepts might be valid and trustworthy. Fundamentally, many aspects of Darwin’s assumptions involving Evolution have been demonstrated relatively successfully. Not many other theories proposed before 1860 have survived nearly as well! Nevertheless, because his theory cannot explain convincingly certain complexities regarding life and life forms, and the initiation of life itself, it is at best only one part of a greater truth. Even in his day with its limited knowledge, Darwin was frustrated when trying to explain the intricacies and interdependence of parts of the human eye.
To suppose that the eye with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus for different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest degree.
He goes on to state it could have happened, provided each small helpful physical change could be passed on to succeeding generations. Nowadays we know that the inheritance of physical changes does not happen with quite the facility and precision that Darwin hoped, and we know hugely more about the interdependent complexity of the structure and functioning of the human eye—which is dependent on a separate visual centre in the brain, tear glands and tears with just the right chemical mix and alkalinity, three primary colour cones to mix light stimuli into all the colours we see and enjoy, protective eye sockets and eyelids and so much else besides—such that what Darwin described as apparently “absurd in the highest degree” is certainly “profoundly absurd”.
In addition, our escalating knowledge of Microbiology and the interdependence and complexity of all living systems makes any unguided process of development appear less and less likely—and our biochemical knowledge of this interdependence is burgeoning. Even as a student, I already recognised a number of complex biochemical systems unlikely to have arisen spontaneously.
This question of spontaneous development of life itself from non-living materials appeared to have been given a boost in experiments that duplicated the chemical soup supposed to have existed on a primordial Earth—and when energy was added, some amino acids were produced. Now amino acids are the building blocks for proteins, which can self-replicate, and it was assumed the first life forms could have been generated by a similar process. My conceptual understanding of Chemistry made me doubt this, amino acids being non-living, and light years from an independent living cell—the brown bottles of amino acids on the shelves of laboratories around the world had shown no signs of generating a life form, according to people who had inspected them hopefully. Furthermore, what I had learnt at school about a “simple cell” as the building block of life was no longer considered simple at all, but more like a village where each member was sustained by interactions with others and the environment. (Currently, the “simple cell” is recognised as extraordinarily complex and now more like an interdependent city!)
Logically, I questioned whether all this could have arisen spontaneously simply by chance interactions involving comparatively simple scientific laws?
When a previous theory is no longer capable of explaining complex observations, a new theory is called for, or at least a radical readjustment of the old one. Back then, I decided to question my esteemed Professor of Geology, Geoffrey Bond, regarding my doubts.
The Professor listened patiently to me. He agreed that no mechanism or combination of mechanisms so far suggested by scientists could explain the appearance and development of life on Earth. I was surprised how readily he agreed to this. However, he made a vital point: while mechanisms remained mysterious, nevertheless the stages of the development of the different life forms in the fossil record were recorded internationally and there could be no doubt about this progressive development. The big picture of past Evolution had definitely happened. What remained elusive was a mechanism to explain how these evolutionary changes were brought about.
He left me with a suggestion that captured my thinking for a while. “I think the scientists investigating how life may have begun are not taking sufficient notice of the millions of years involved. I think the solution to these problems lies in the Time factor.”
For more than a year, the input of Time into the quest for a mechanism to explain Evolution satisfied me. Time was the missing factor, but of course one almost impossible to test reliably in the laboratory.
Towards the end of my university degree, I became unsure all over again when I looked at my chaotic desk with books, pages of notes, pens, pencils, stapler, paper punch, some medications, scraps of paper and all sorts of things scattered higgledy-piggledy over the surface. I felt that for the desk items to become sorted again after exams, it would take me to do it. My conscious intelligence would have to be involved to produce rational order, not simply blind natural forces—regardless of how many billions of years my desk might be left to the mercy of visionless forces.
As I pondered my chaotic desk, I began to question my Professor’s reliance on Time and unintelligent random forces for producing and guiding the systematic development of increasingly complex life forms on the planet.
And where did these original forces described by elegant Physics equations come from anyway? To construct the Cosmos, did they pre-exist the proposed Big Bang? Otherwise, could a chaotic explosive Big Bang have produced them?
My confidence in Time as a complete explanation for the appearance and development of life became uncertain. Time to me most likely played a part, but no matter how many years were involved, I simply could no longer conceptualise life itself arising naturally out of extreme primordial chaos. I decided instead that design input by a conscious intelligence must have been involved somehow.
That was my thought-out conclusion.
I knew that within a given species, using selective breeding, the intervention of human intelligence made it possible to produce a multiplicity of varieties very quickly, essentially by copying the routes of natural selection. Nevertheless, despite the thousands of breeding experiments over the years, the many varieties of dogs remained dogs, and of cattle remained cattle. Not even one had definitely changed into another species as far as I could find out from my questioning and reading.
In nature, natural selection produces variety within a breed, but more slowly and with less variation than conscious human intelligence has achieved. I believed while at university that natural selection was a valid concept, and still do—but became unsure that it could have launched life itself.
What is more, the lack of multiple link fossils made me wonder whether natural selection could in reality change one species into another very different one, as Darwin had supposed it had done already many times. Instead, it now seemed to me that the input of an external organising intelligence remained an essential addition to the evolutionary development of new species, and of life itself.
My questioning had nothing to do with religion; nor was I a follower of any religion or any spiritual leader. In fact, during this period of uncertainty I sadly talked a childhood friend out of his Catholicism and into atheism, which I considered the more logical path. He is an atheist to this day.
Some people reading this may wonder why I was searching for answers seeing that I was not spiritually involved? It’s just my nature I guess. I am a natural seeker after truth, always have been since very young. I don’t like to be ignorant nor conned and never accept things without a lot of questions, questions, QUESTIONS—which others can find very wearying. A good friend staying with us scolded me in frustration, “Too many questions!”
The end of university days came in a rush without the opportunity, time or inclination to think further about how life could have begun.
Soon it became necessary because of family reasons to find work near Umtali (now Mutare in Zimbabwe). The only suitable employment available there was as a Science Teacher because becoming a Geologist (my preferred choice) would have necessitated much time spent in the bush.
Shortly afterwards I married Brenda, my wonderful wife to this day, and the demands of establishing myself in my new profession and taking sporting teams over weekends, as well as playing my own sport, left me with less than zero opportunity to pursue the riddle of life appearing and developing on Earth. This problem was like a stew “left on the back burner” of a stove.
And there it remained until my late twenties, when a series of unexpected events overtook me and my jumble of questions bubbled over again.
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