Friday, July 17, 2009

God is a scientist

Except for the science part

Do you read the Daily Mail? Neither do I. But perhaps I should. The entertainment value of Britain's foremost right-wing tabloid seems to be rather high. In a “news” story published this month, the Daily Mail reports on the scientific message embedded by God in the Bible. The subtle message was supposedly uncovered by Oxford University research fellow Andrew Parker, who has been moved to publish a book on his discovery.

Here are some excerpts from the Daily Mail's report, which is a kind of combination news-story/book-review:
The Genesis enigma: How DID the Bible describe the evolution of life 3,000 years before Darwin?

By Christopher Hart
Last updated at 12:13 AM on 18th July 2009

The revalation [sic] came to Professor Andrew Parker during a visit to Rome. He was in the Sistine Chapel, gazing up at Michelangelo's awesome ceiling paintings, when a realisation struck him with dizzying force.

‘A Biblical enigma exists that is on the one hand so cryptic it has remained camouflaged for millennia, and on the other so obvious one cannot miss it.’

The enigma is that the order of Creation as described in the Book of Genesis, and so powerfully depicted in the Sistine Chapel by the greatest artist of the Renaissance, has been precisely, eerily confirmed by modern evolutionary science.

Yet how on earth could this be possible? And why had nobody noticed it before?

Such was the starting point of Parker's jaw-dropping new book, The Genesis Enigma: an astounding work which seeks to prove that the ancient Hebrew writers of the Book of Genesis knew all about evolution—3,000 years before Darwin.
And poor Darwin never realized it. He thought his principal rival was Alfred Russel Wallace, when in actuality it was the divinely inspired authors of the Bible who had scooped him by a few millennia.
Andrew Parker is a leading scientist in his field: a research fellow at Oxford University, research leader at the Natural History Museum, and as if that weren't enough, a professor at Shanghai's Jiao Tong university.

As a scientist he never paid much heed to the Book of Genesis, assuming, like most of his colleagues, that such primitive mythology—which is believed to have been compiled from several sources between 950 and 500 BC—has long since been ‘disproved’ by hard scientific fact.

But after his Sistine Chapel moment, he went back to look at Genesis in more detail. And what he read astonished him. It was even, he says, ‘slightly scary’.

Somehow—God alone knew how—the writer or writers of that ancient text had described how the evolution of life on earth took place in precise detail and perfect order.
It sounds as though Professor Parker found himself a pair of Bible goggles. Everything looks different when you look at the world through your Bible goggles. For example, the Flintstones turns into a science documentary. (Ken Ham would be so proud!)
It is always disturbing and haunting to encounter an ancient wisdom that seems to anticipate or even exceed our own.

More fanciful writers immediately start to theorise wildly: that those who built the pyramids, or Stonehenge, must have been guided by super-intelligent aliens, that sort of thing.

Andrew Parker, a scientist and proud of it, has no time for such twaddle. But he does gradually come to understand, in the course of his investigations, that our ancestors of thousands of years ago, though they may not have had iPods and plasma-screen televisions, nevertheless possessed a wisdom that was, quite literally, timeless: as true now as it was then.

In the Book of Genesis, God first and most famously creates heaven and earth, but ‘without form’, and commands: ‘Let there be light.’ A perfect description of the Big Bang, that founding moment of our universe some 13 billion years ago, an unimaginable explosion of pure energy and matter ‘without form’ out of nothing—the primordial Biblical ‘void’.
Wow! A cosmic epiphany! “Let there be light” is indisputably a “perfect description” of the origin of time and energy and matter. Of course, it doesn't actually mention matter or hint at mass-energy equivalence, but let's not quibble. If we don't quibble, we can agree that the description is perfect.
He then creates the dry land out of the waters, but it is the water that comes first. As Parker points out, scientists today understand very similarly that water is indeed crucial for life.

When ‘astrobiologists’ look into space for signs of life on other planets, the first thing they look for is the possible presence of water.
Another hit! A most palpable hit! Today scientists search for water as a prerequisite for life on other planets. That is certainly why God made it first! (On the second day. After light.)
On the third day, we are told: ‘God said, “Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit after his kind, whose seed is in itself, upon the earth: and it was so.”’

Now factually speaking, grass didn't evolve until much later. In the Triassic and Jurassic epochs, the dinosaurs knew only plants such as giant conifers and tree ferns. But since grass did not in fact evolve until much later, a sternly literal-minded scientist would declare the Bible wrong, and consign it to the nearest wheelie bin.

But wait a minute, says Parker. If you take ‘grass, herb and tree’ to mean photosynthesising life in general, then this is, once again, spot on.
Parker is indisputably right: If you ignore the errors, then the Bible account in Genesis is correct!
The very life forms on earth were single-celled bacteria, but the first truly viable bacteria were the ‘cyanobacteria’—those that had learned to photosynthesise.

As a result, they began to expire oxygen, creating an atmosphere that could go on to support more and more life. They were the key to life on earth.

Naturally, says Parker, ‘the ancient Israelites would have been oblivious to any single-celled life form, let alone cyanobacteria’, but ‘grass’ as a loose description of life forms that photosynthesise?
Parker is really slacking off here. I have it on good authority that all of the letters required to spelled out “cyanobacteria” and “photosynthesis” occur in the first chapter of Genesis. Parker is missing some really compelling evidence!
On the fourth day, Genesis famously becomes confusing. On the first day, remember, God has already created light, and made Day and Night. But it isn't until day four that he makes the lights in heaven, the greater light to rule the day and the lesser the night.

Hang on—so he made ‘Day’ three days before he made the Sun? Houston, I think we have a problem.

Yet the writers of Genesis were just as well aware as us, surely, that the sunrise causes the day. You don't need a degree in astronomy to work that one out. What on earth did they mean?

Here, The Genesis Enigma comes up with a stunningly ingenious answer.
Brace yourselves, folks. Here it comes. Biblical exegesis at its most eye-opening!
For Parker argues that day four refers to the evolution of vision.

Until the first creatures on earth evolved eyes, in a sense, the sun and moon didn't exist. There was no creature on earth to see them, nor the light they cast.

When Genesis says: ‘Let there be lights... To divide the day from the night,’ it is talking about eyes.

‘The very first eye on earth effectively turned on the lights for animal behaviour,’ writes Professor Parker, ‘and consequently for further rapid evolution.’
Didn't see that one coming, did you? How could we have been so blind! (That may have been a joke, but you'll forgive me if I'm just a little bit befuddled right now.)
Almost overnight, life suddenly grew vastly more complex. Predators were able to hunt far more efficiently, and so prey had to evolve fast too—or get eaten.

The moment that there were ‘lights’, or eyes, then life exploded into all its infinite variety.

And yet again, that's what Genesis says happened, and in the correct environment too. In the sea.

For on the very next day of Creation, the fifth day: ‘God said, “Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life.”’

That is exactly what happened. Life that had hitherto been lived in the dark, by simple, slow-moving, worm-like creatures, erupted into dazzling diversity. We know all about it from the world famous Burgess Shale fossils.

They were discovered in the summer of 1909 by one Charles Doolittle Walcott, on holiday with his family in the Canadian Rockies. Walcott began to chip away at the shale with his geological hammer, and quite by chance stumbled upon one of the greatest finds in all science.

For the shale records what happened on our planet around 508 million years ago, long before the first dinosaurs: the ‘Cambrian explosion,’ which most scientists now think was indeed the direct result of the evolution of vision.
Poor Stephen Jay Gould wrote an entire book on the Burgess Shale without ever realizing it contained a vital key to the truth of Genesis. Professor Parker is running rings around him with his superior intelligence.
How does Genesis describe the teeming aquatic life of the Cambrian explosion? ‘And God said, “Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life.”’

How did the writer/writers know that life suddenly diversified into this rich and staggering variety, under the oceans, not on land? Why would a very much land-based people, pastoralists and shepherds, even think like this?
These are excellent questions. Assuming, of course, that the Bible scribes intended “bring forth abundantly” to indicate variety as well as quantity, and assuming further that God's holy stenographers also implied an “explosion” of sea life, and assuming even further that they did not simply flip a coin in deciding to discuss sea creatures before land animals, then we must confront the issue head on: How did these harmless rustics have the imagination to write about (by implication, anyway) suddenly burgeoning varieties of innumerable sea creatures arising before life on land? God must have whispered in their ears, right?
And after the sea monsters come the birds, the animals, cattle, and finally, homo sapiens. All present and correct, and all still in the right order.
Don't forget, we're still awarding God a mulligan on that unfortunate business with the premature citation of “grass,” which has been known to muddle the recollection. I'm not sure, either, how “cattle” got separated from “animals,” but I'm a farm boy who is aware that cattle can be sly little rascals.
Once again, ‘In describing how the planet and life around us came to be, the writer of the Genesis narrative got it disturbingly right’.
Except, of course, where he (they?) got it wrong, in which case we forgive them.

The Daily Mail finishes up its report on Parker's Genesis Enigma with a few words of caution from the author, who does not want to be mistaken for a creationist:
So what should we make of the extraordinary findings of The Genesis Enigma?

Professor Parker is clear on this subject. ‘It would be a great shame if my findings were either misused in an attempt to suggest that scientists themselves are unsure about science, or pounded out of all recognition into support of the seven-day creation premise.’

Nevertheless, when Parker comes to explaining how the writers of Genesis knew what they knew, he can only conclude that it was due to ‘divine intervention’, or ‘a lucky guess’. Since the odds of the latter seem fantastically remote, Parker tentatively suggests the former.
He leaves out post hoc apologetics and special pleading, but he's a busy man who can't be expected to anticipate everything. (God may have divinely inspired Genesis, but he was less generous in the case of The Genesis Enigma.)
Parker clearly demonstrates what an extraordinary text the Bible is—and even more so, not less so, in the light of modern science. But he is surely wrong to think that the only way of coming by knowledge is either through science or ‘divine intervention’.
Oops! Where did that come from? Daily Mail reporter Christopher Hart gave Professor Parker a lot of leeway in laying out the argument of The Genesis Enigma, but Mr. Hart has been keeping some doubt in reserve.
The writers of Genesis didn't possess scientific knowledge, they didn't have Darwin, or the earth-shattering findings of Victorian geology. They didn't, as Parker himself says, have ‘so much as a magnifying lens’.

But that doesn't prove divine intervention either. Instead, they possessed an ancient, intuitive wisdom of great poetry and beauty.

One could compare this with the wisdom of other, pre-scientific cultures, which often turns out to correspond closely to the findings of modern science.

Darwinian evolution teaches us that all life on earth is related. We human beings are 99 per cent genetically identical to chimpanzees and orang-utans. But as the great Professor Steve Jones always loves to point out, we are also 90 per cent mice, and even 50 per cent banana.

Don't worry, Jones adds reassuringly. This doesn't actually make you half-banana—nor for that matter does it make bananas half-human, or the ethics of eating banoffee pie would just get too complicated.
The invocation of the name of Steve Jones certainly raises the level of the discussion, but the article is still sputtering to an awkward conclusion.
But the surreal comedy of this science aside, there is serious matter here. For just as Darwinian evolution confirms much of the Book of Genesis, it also confirms other, supposedly ‘primitive’ ways of looking at the natural world.

To appreciate the power of pre-scientific wisdom is not for a moment to downgrade the achievements of modern science. But it does emphasise incredible power and, more surprising still, the accuracy of more ancient, ‘poetic’ ways of seeing. As an ancient proverb has it: ‘The mountain has only one summit, but many paths up.’
Sorry, but that's just a little too evocative of Robert Jastrow's goofy coda to his book God and the Astronomers: “For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting here for centuries.”

Yeah. Right.

And the writers of Genesis knew about the Big Bang, evolution, and the Cambrian explosion.

20 comments:

Mark said...

>“He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting here for centuries.”


No no, I actually quite agree with this -- theologians sitting on top of mountains of ignorance.

faceless said...

It's always seemed pretty obvious to me that the story shown in Genesis was merely a highly condensed time-line.

I don't see why anyone would feel the need to dismiss it - unless they arrogantly believe that humans today are somehow that much better than humans in the past.

a few thousand years is nothing in evolutionary terms, so why shouldn't they have had a perfectly logical understanding, even if it was written in allegorical terms?

Blake Stacey said...

It would be more accurate to say that the theologians came up by cable car after a ski resort had been built on the mountain, and then claimed to have been living there for three thousand years.

jimvj said...

The earliest copies of "The Bible" are the Dead Sea scrolls, which date from about 300 BCE onward.

That is about THREE THOUSAND YEARS later than the earliest available writings of the Sumerian and the Egyptian and the Indus Valley civilizations.

Such a smart god this Yahweh!

Zeno said...

What is your point, Faceless? And why should we credit the creation myth in Genesis any more than we credit any other creation myth? And if the Bible writers had a "perfectly logical understanding" (albeit "allegorical"), why is that not clear to so many of today's Bible believers? That "logical understanding" isn't coming across very well and there's not much evidence (look at how hard Parker had to work to gin some up) that the Bible scribes possessed it.

Are today's humans better than the people of the Genesis-writing era? In terms of knowledge, yes. Our culture has accumulated a lot of information in the intervening years and greater understanding is available to those who stop trying to force the data into the patterns of old myths.

Edgar said...

Not as bad as creationism, but stretches of imagination are still as huge. And I love that age old story, "I used to not believe, but now I do because I'm wiser."

reyfox said...

"It's always seemed pretty obvious to me that the story shown in Genesis was merely a highly condensed time-line."

Yeah, that must be why everyone took it as a literal weeklong creation for hundreds of years. So very obvious.

Until we actually started researching the world and found out that they were wrong.

Anonymous said...

"I don't see why anyone would feel the need to dismiss it - unless they arrogantly believe that humans today are somehow that much better than humans in the past."

Um, Faceless? You know that the people back then didn't even know enough to keep their feces out of their water supply, right? We've learned a lot since then. It's OK to admit that. It doesn't mean that they were dumb, just ignorant.

A hundred years ago people had pretty much the same brain size as we do now. Intelligence as well. Did they know about Quarks? No.

Try to keep things in perspective, OK?

BdN said...

"It's always seemed pretty obvious to me that the story shown in Genesis was merely a highly condensed time-line."

You should've stopped there. I don't find it difficult to imagine it is a condensed time-line. But the "knowledge" stops there. In fact, even being a condensed time-line, it is not knowledge but only a way human spirit imagines how things happened in a remote past. It doesn't give it any more value than an Hollywood movie's montage on the truth of the matter. Or, then, you should also acknowledge the truth of every other creation story that ever was because of it's metaphorical merits. What do you think of the value of the Iroquois creation myth ?

"I don't see why anyone would feel the need to dismiss it - unless they arrogantly believe that humans today are somehow that much better than humans in the past.

a few thousand years is nothing in evolutionary terms, so why shouldn't they have had a perfectly logical understanding, even if it was written in allegorical terms?"

faceless, you seem to imply that people who say that those stories are false think they are more intelligent than those who wrote it because of evolution. That is completely untrue : nobody thinks that. As you say yourself, a few thousand years is nothing. But as Zeno pointed out, the important element here is the accumulation of knowledge and culture. Do you really think that because they were as intelligent and rational (and irrational) as we are mean they had a better understanding of scientific matters ? Does this mean they also had and equivalent knowledge of atomic theory ? They understood electricity ? They understood such stuff as genetic transmission all along ?

Alex, FCD said...

The very[first?] life forms on earth were single-celled bacteria, but the first truly viable bacteria were the ‘cyanobacteria’

This is not even close to correct, unless the author has a very strange definition of "truly viable".

Frank Lovell said...

It wasn't through exegesis that the author wrote this "interpretation" of what the Bible plainly says -- it was through eisegesis, unbridled eisegesis (look it up)!

Hmmmm...on second thought, there's hardly anything new about that -- that's how it came to be that there are hundreds of doctrinally distinct "denominations" of Bible-believers; what this author has done is simply made a quantum-leap in wishful eisegetic envelope-pushing.

There seems to be no limit to what people will do to preserve their utterly undemonstrated cherished notions -- or else to make money off of people who are desperate to preserve their utterly undemonstrated cherished notions.

Augray said...

The article states that "And after the sea monsters come the birds, the animals, cattle, and finally, homo sapiens. All present and correct, and all still in the right order". But in fact, birds came after animals. I wonder how Parker wiggles out of that?

The Ridger, FCD said...

Man. I remember a priest in my church preaching this exact thing (except for the lights=eyes bit) forty years ago.

It didn't make sense then, either. Genesis is an explicit refutation of other myths - the sun's not a god, it's just a light to tell time by, for instance - and not a scientific explanation of anything. These are the guys who think rabbits chew cud and grasshoppers have four legs, after all...

Taz said...

Augray - That's easy. "Birds" actually means dinosaurs, and "animals" means mammals. Wow, this game is kind of fun! Someone should write a computer program similar to Dawkin's Weasel program that "evolves" Genesis into a Biology textbook.

Tony said...

Zeno,

Your sarcasm is brilliant, but the decision to use a Rastafarian lobster, reminiscient of the Little Mermaid's Sebastian, is a work of true genius.

JefFlyingV said...

Whew, apparently people can tailor the bible to meet any challenge from science. The Bible has certainly become a fluid piece of literature, will Genesis also have the Human genome listed in code?

Shikyo said...

Lol postdiction amuses me.

flynn said...

Wow, eyes (Day 4) showed up before animals (Day 5). Those who ask, "what good is half an eye," might do well to ask, "what good is an eye with no animal to stick it in?"

Anselm said...

Why does Parker use the 400-year-old King James version, which some Christian nutters still regard as equivalent to the Holy And Sacred Scriptures Themselves? The New International Version (which I understand is regarded as being reasonably authoritative) translates the word as "vegetation", obviously using it as a catch-all term that includes "seed-bearing plants and trees" - and, presumably, grass.

How does Parker deal with verses 6 and 7, which the Contemporary English Version gives as ""I command a dome to separate the water above it from the water below it." And that's what happened. God made the dome and named it "Sky."" As far as I'm aware, there has been nothing approaching a scientific explanation for "the water above the sky", although a watery firmament above the atmosphere, stupid though the idea is, is beloved of creationists. This "dome" is like nothing so much as the ancient models of inverted pudding bowls sitting on a flat earth, or (later) of solid spheres surrounding our globe - both of them ideas that we now know (pace faceless) to be utter nonsense.

His interpretation of the fourth day to mean the evolution of vision seems ludicrous on his own terms. In another interview in the Metro newspaper (4th August, p.8) he says that the authors of the Bible were "shoehorning the facts into the type of story people would be able to understand". No one, then or now, can possibly "understand" how light can exist independently of the sun, moon and stars which so palpably emit (or, in the case of the moon, reflect) it. So this is some kind of coded reference to the evolutionary development of vision in animals? But how would "people" before Darwin "understand" this, either - in fact, how could people before July 16th this year (the publication date of Parker's book) have possibly "understood" the true significance of the reference in Genesis' fourth day?

The best explanation is possibly some kind of tacit corruption of the original text, which subsequent editors had fetishised to the extent that they would not alter a jot or tittle of it, even the bits that were plain gibberish.

Quite apart from these points, this God thing did not just create but named day, night, sky, land and sea. What language did he use to name them? Hebrew? English? Swahili? Martian? What is the "divine language" that he used to communicate with Adam and Eve, and which was split up into the confusion of tongues at the Tower of Babel?

And how does he account for the two different creation stories in the first two chapters of Genesis, especially the reversed order of the creation of animals and humans? What does this make of his "ancient wisdom that seems to anticipate or even exceed our own"?

And what's the point of all this, anyway? Much, if not the whole, of existence is self-contained. As a scientist, he presumably would not submit a paper to a reputable scienctific journal ascribing human evolution to divine intervention. Science assumes the non-existence of the supernatural, and it's done reasonably well at constructing a model of the origins of the universe, of our solar system and our planet, and of the development, if not yet the origin, of life on our planet. So where does this "God" thing come into it according to Parker? Was it just a silent witness to all of these naturally occurring events, serving only to whisper the "truth" into the ears of uncomprehending scribes about 3,000 years ago?

unapologetic said...

they would not alter a jot or tittle of it

Oh, but they did! As you note, he's using the KJV, which is in English. There are no Hebrew letters at all, let alone any occurrences of yod, and there are no diacritic tittles either.