Thursday, December 24, 2009

Book Review: The Genesis Enigma (2009)

It had to happen eventually... For years, some creationists have been trying to align Genesis 1 with geological history from a so-called 'scientific creationism' perspective. Now we have an evolutionist, Andrew Parker, claiming that Genesis 1 perfectly describes evolutionary history. Here is the alignment he proposes:

GenesisThe scientific history of the earth
And God said, 'Let there be light'The formation of the sun (around 5,000 million years ago)
And God said, 'Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear'The formation of the seas, and the separation of land areas (around 4,200 million years ago)
'Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed [vegetation]'The beginning of life, including single-celled, photosynthetic organisms ('plants') (around 3,900 million years ago)
'Let there be lights ... to divide the day from night'The first image-forming eye evolved and the visual information used. The lights were turned on for animal behaviour and evolution (around 521 million years ago)
'Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life'The Cambrian explosion — evolution's Big Bang (beginning around 520 million years ago)
God created the great whales, and every living creature that moveth, which the waters brought forth abundantly after their kind ...Life was exclusively marine at this time. It was in this period that all the animal phyla that exist today evolved their characteristic forms. These facts are not common knowledge. Only an experienced biologist would know this.
... and every winged fowl after his kindAll animals adapted to the vision of predators, except for birds, which could afford not to because they can escape predation through flight, and so generally can avoid camouflage colours. It is fascinating that sea creatures and birds should be singled out. These are, respectively, the main characters and exceptions in life's history book.

On the basis of these "observations", Andrew Parker claims that the Bible is scientifically accurate. But it doesn't take much to discover that Parker is reading a great deal into the biblical text! Let's just check one phrase that Parker uses to prove the Bible is scientifically accurate: Genesis 1:14-19 (NRSV) which reads:

And God said, “Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years, and let them be lights in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth.” And it was so. God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars. God set them in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth, to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day.

The description of these lights being 'in the dome of the sky' immediately identifies these objects as being heavenly bodies. As is well known, the ancient Near Eastern cultures understood the cosmos to be three-tiered — heaven, earth, underworld. The dome of the sky is clearly referring to heaven and it was understood, in these ancient cultures, to contain the sun, moon, and stars. The text speaks of two great lights to rule the day and night, plus the stars. It is impossible to avoid the implication that these are talking about the sun and moon.

But Parker reduces these six verses to the phrase to 'let there be lights ... to divide the day from night' and suggests that it refers to the evolution of the eye in animals. This interpretation of the text is laughable and completely disrespects the original genre and purpose of the text in its own cultural context!

Here's an alternative understanding of these verses: In ancient cosmology outside of Israel, the sun, moon, and stars had been put into place by the gods to regulate the seasons and the calendar. There was a strong "personal" attribution to these heavenly bodies. In the Genesis account, the author is removing this personal element and attributing the presence of these bodies to the creative work of God who is distinct from God's creation. The whole Genesis account can be demonstrated to have parallels in ancient Near Eastern culture and so it is unsurprising that many of the elements in the Genesis account are present. Genesis 1, amongst other purposes, is a polemic against the polytheistic and anthropomorphic cosmology of the time and the elements of the narrative can be demonstrated to be so.

But Parker has brought his own particular agenda to the text like many fundamentalist creationists do and tries to force a scientific reading onto the text. It is time to give up on this project. Genesis was never intended to be a scientific account of origins. Even a cursory consultation with a scholarly commentary on Genesis will show this. Those, including creationists, who persist in trying to coerce Genesis to prove what they want ultimately become an embarrassment. The whole point of the two creation accounts is overlooked and the literary qualities and original authors' intent becomes completely lost in hermeneutical servitude to a modern, 21st century agenda.

So the explicit project of The Genesis Enigma is a complete failure and is not worth reading with that particular interest in mind. However, there is some value in the book if the thesis of proving Genesis's scientific accuracy is abandoned. The very large majority of the book is an engaging account of the development of evolutionary thought over the centuries. Read for this, the book is quite enlightening and enjoyable. Parker is certainly qualified to write on natural history. But when it comes to interpreting the Bible, he goes completely astray.

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