Monday, 9 March 2015

Critiquing Bruce Gurd's attack on Evolutionary Creationism - 1

Bruce Gurd’s recent lecture to the Cumberland Ecclesia “Our Joy in Fellowship Challenged by Evolutionary Creationists” continues a trend of poorly researched attacks on evolutionary creationism. Gurd’s well-intentioned lecture was marred by a condescending tone, gross misrepresentation of the position of evolutionary creationists, and worst of all, a fundamentalist approach to exegesis. This is arguably the worst part of his lecture.

The rise of the New Atheists and their increasingly sophisticated attacks demands a scholarly, intellectually rigorous approach to apologetics. The superficiality of Gurd’s anti-evolution lecture will not only serve as a poor role model for young people seeking to face this challenge but also alienate the intelligent, intellectually honest young person whom our community desperately needs to provide the next generation of defenders of the faith.

Gurd’s misrepresentation begins with his lecture title “Our Joy in Fellowship Challenged by Evolutionary Creationists” which conveniently ignores the fact that it is Gurd and other anti-evolutionists who are actively seeking to purge our community of those who either accept evolution, or do not regard the mechanism by which the diversity of life appeared a fellowship issue.  

Evolutionary creationists do not insist that their view be normative for the ecclesial world. What they seek is for the issue to be deemed not a fellowship issue. The divisive response by Gurd and the Lampstand Committee clearly shows that it is the anti-evolutionists who are threatening the ‘Joy in Fellowship’ our community currently enjoys.

Gurd begins badly by (1) ignoring the fact that it is fundamentalists like himself whose provocative response has made the subject vexatious (2) ignoring the scientific issues which are a significant part of the problem, given the consistently inaccurate attacks on evolution made by opponents of evolution in our community and (3) championing a dogmatically fideistic approach to the subject which is at variance with our community’s traditional intellectual, scholarly method:
I think your all aware that there has been a vexatious issue in our brotherhood which some call Theistic Evolution, and others call Evolutionary Creationism and what I want to do tonight is not talk about science at all, because I don’t know much about science so I am just going to talk about the bible and the simple thing that we all believe as those who have been called to this precious hope as Christ's brothers and sisters.
Given Gurd’s admission that he doesn’t know much about science (an entirely reasonable statement given that he is not a biologist but an academic in a school of business in South Australia) it is puzzling to see him immediately make an indirect allusion to the argument from design;
Those who made the beach outing Kingston Park I think would have been, you know we sit and listen to Matt Oliver explain how the cuttlefish works and how it fills up all its empty parts with water and sinks and then uses jet propulsion type systems to get to the top and we all just sit there and think well Gods works are marvellous aren’t they, but other people try to come up with much more complex explanations.
Given that the evidence both for common descent[1] and the ability of natural selection acting on random mutation to effect design[2] have both been regarded as well established beyond reasonable doubt by his scientific colleagues.

It is unfortunate that Gurd has chosen to speak authoritatively on subjects outside his area of professional competence, rather than extending to his scientific colleagues the courtesy of accepting that “other people” who “try to come up with much more complex explanations” not only know what they are talking about, but are in a far better position to provide an informed, accurate, professional opinion on the subject.

A pervasive theme of his lecture is his gross misrepresentation both of what evolutionary creationists actually believe, and his failure to appreciate that even among Christadelphian special creationists, a belief in a literal recent six day creation is anything other than normative:
So what is this thing called evolutionary creationism, well one of the brethren involved in this says it’s the view that God uses evolution as the method to create life on our planet. So in other words the things see were there because of the power of God, but rather than God forming them especially in 6 days they think they evolved over billions of years. So the living things were not made in 6 literal days but over billions of years – so what we see is the process of evolution.
Like other special creationists, Gurd simply assumes without any justification that creation means ‘special creation’; this view betrays considerable ignorance of the concept of divine agency, where Divine action can be effected through secondary causes while still ultimately being ascribed to the hand of God.  The phrase in Psa 148:8 "stormy wind fulfilling his word" neatly makes this point that God does make use of natural phenomena, rather than physically intervening in the natural world shepherding individual atoms to achieve a goal. 

The distinction between primary and secondary causes is one that not only has a long and respected tradition in Christian theology.  To quote physicist Howard Van Till, God has gifted the world with functional integrity. [3] In other words:
The creation was gifted from the outset with functional integrity — a wholeness of being that eliminated the need for gap-bridging interventions to compensate for formational capabilities that the Creator may have initially withheld from it" so it is "accurately described by the Robust Formational Economy Principle — an affirmation that the creation was fully equipped by God with all of the resources, potentialities, and formational capabilities that would be needed for the creaturely system to actualize every type of physical structure and every form of living organism that has appeared in the course of time.[4]
This distinction between miracle and providence is one which also has a long history in our community. As Robert Roberts aptly put it in The Ways of Providence:
A first idea to be mastered in apprehending the ways of providence is the relation of the universe to God. All things are in Him, and He, though personally located in the highest heaven, is everywhere present by the Spirit, which is His substance in diffusion, so to speak. Nevertheless, God is different from His works. Creation, as organised by Him and in Him has a fixed nature, in virtue of which it has, by His appointment, an independent action, so to speak. Results ensue from certain conditions without His volition participating in the results.  
For example: you place a strip of paper in the candle flame: ignition follows. The ignition did not require the will of Almighty God to produce it. It resulted from conditions originally established by His will, but now having permitted independence of action. The same thing is illustrated in the million occurrences of everyday experience. It is essential to recognise it. It constitutes the platform of evidence. There could be no such conception as providence if every thing were due to direct Divine volition(Emphasis mine)
Gurd’s first major mischaracterisation of evolutionary creationism comes coupled with profound ignorance of palaeoanthropology, when he implies that they teach Cain married ‘monkey people’:
So they call it Evolutionary Creationism because God started this, he created it but he used the process of evolution for the living things to emerge.  
God started creation, he allowed life to emerge and there was these creatures called hominids and these were sort of they don’t like us calling them monkey people but that’s really what they’ve got these sort of people like us and it just so happens that God looked at the people who had evolved and he created Adam and Eve genetically identical so that they could intermarry with them and Cain married one of these hominid ape people that had evolved. 
Again they get annoyed when you call them ape people, but I think that’s really what they are talking about. Any questions so far?
Evolutionary creationists ‘get annoyed’ with gross misrepresentation and wilful ignorance from scientific laypeople, particularly those whose admission that they know nothing about science would perhaps be considered grounds for more humility when speaking outside their area of competence, as well as a willingness to listen to what genuine experts have to say on the subject.

Gurd’s reference to ‘hominids’ betrays considerable misunderstanding of what the word means. So, what is a hominid? The Australian Museum website provides the currently accepted definition:
Hominid – the group consisting of all modern and extinct Great Apes (that is, modern humans, chimpanzees, gorillas and orang-utans plus all their immediate ancestors). 
Homininthe group consisting of modern humans, extinct human species and all our immediate ancestors (including members of the genera Homo, Australopithecus, Paranthropus and Ardipithecus).[5]
Gurd’s use suggests he has failed to keep up with palaeoanthropology as he is using the term ‘hominid’ when he really should have used the term ‘hominin.’ The latter refers simply to human beings and their ancestors, whereas the former refers to humans, great apes, and their ancestors. This is not a minor detail, and again shows that he is hopelessly out of his depth on the subject and therefore not in a position to advance an credible opinion, much less lecture others on the subject.

Gurd’s jibe about ‘monkey men’ betrays further ignorance of palaeoanthropology. Anatomically modern human beings – Homo sapiens – have been present on Earth for at least 200,000 years[6] while all the hominins other than Homo sapiens went extinct no later than around 12,000 years ago with the extinction of Homo floresiensis.  

Given that the that Genesis 4 places Cain and Abel no earlier than the start of animal and plant domestication in the ancient Near East, which is around 10,000 years ago, the only hominins alive at that time were Homo sapiens (modern humans), while the only other hominids alive at that time were gorillas, orang-utans and the two chimpanzee species. Cain married a human being—not a ‘monkey man’—since the only hominins alive at that time were fellow human beings.

While Gurd’s uninformed critique of evolution is regrettable, even worse is his championing of a strictly literalist reading of the Bible that represents a dangerous deviation from sound Christadelphian exegesis:
So all I want to say tonight is that we have fellowship in Christ based on, there is three things we need to focus on. First of all we all believe the bible as it is written and it’s expressed in the foundation of the BaSF.  
So when Aaron got up and read Psalm 33 it says that God spake and it was done, we accept it as it was written – right. We know that there are problems in translations and potential problems in Hebrew and Greek manuscripts but we actually accept the Bible as it is written.
Gurd’s primary error is to assume that a literal hermeneutic is the default exegetical option; like all hermeneutical stances, it needs to be justified, and not assumed. Nearly 150 years ago, Robert Roberts quoted with approval the following comment by a brother Paterson, which while not referring to the creation narrative shows that the literalism Gurd champions was viewed dimly by the early Christadelphians:
‘They say that the true mode of interpreting the scriptures is by “literal interpretation:” just reading it as it stands; that it needs no explanation—it can explain itself. We say “No.” For Paul lays down another rule in his letter to the Corinthians, where he says that “he spoke not the words which man’s wisdom taught, but which the holy spirit taught, comparing spiritual things with spiritual.”’[7]
This is readily seen with C.C. Walker, who while rejecting evolution recognised the considerable difficulties that emerged from a wooden literal reading of the creation narratives:
Yet it does not seem necessary to confine the allusions of this first chapter of Genesis to six literal days on the last of which man appeared.’[8] 
‘Moses’ testimony is not so “plain” that it cannot be misinterpreted or misunderstood.’[9] 
‘As to “the fourth day,” we do not know of any “day” in the literal sense apart from the sun and its motion. And, therefore, if the “days” of Genesis 1. are to be taken as literal days, we feel bound to admit the sun as the origin of the “light,” and “evening and morning” that were the characteristics of “the first day.” How can you have “evening and morning” without the sun? We must settle up “the plain testimony” of verse 5 with that of verses 14–19.’ [10]
Gurd must acknowledge that he does not really accept the Bible as written, otherwise he would believe in demon possession as a cause of disease since the Bible as written clearly refers to Jesus addressing demons. Likewise, he’d believe that the Earth was fixed, with the sun, moon, and stars moving around it.

No Christadelphian really accepts the Bible ‘as written’. What is needed is the honesty to admit this, and then justify the times when they do read the Bible ‘as written’.


[1] “[N]o reliable observation has ever been found to contradict the general notion of common descent. It should come as no surprise, then, that the scientific community at large has accepted evolutionary descent as a historical reality since Darwin’s time and considers it among the most reliably established and fundamentally important facts in all of science.” Gregory T.R. “Evolution as Fact, Theory, and Path” Evo Edu Outreach (2008) 1:46-52

[2] The discipline of evolutionary computation allows incredibly complex structures to be created using mutation and selection. Some designs exceed that which can be achieved using intelligent designers. See Marczyk A “Genetic Algorithms and Evolutionary Computation” TalkOrigins April 23 2004

[3] Van Till HJ "Basil, Augustine, and the Doctrine of Creation's Functional Integrity" Science & Christian Belief (1996) 8: 21-38.



[6] McDougall I, Francis H. Brown F.B., John G. Fleagle J.G. Stratigraphic placement and age of modern humans from Kibish, Ethiopia Nature (2005) 433:733-736

[7]  ‘False Literalism’, The Ambassador of the Coming Age (1867) 4: 328

[8] Walker C.C., 'Genesis', The Christadelphian (1910) 47:362

[9] Walker C.C., ‘Is it wrong to believe that the earth is a sphere?’ The Christadelphian (1913) 50:348

[10] ibid, p 348