The Battle of Beginnings: The Creation-Evolution Debate

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The Battle of Beginnings: Why Neither Side is Winning the Creation-Evolution Debate by Del Ratzsch (IVP,1996), 248 pages.

Most debates are polarized and extreme positions are opposed to one another in a right versus wrong, true or false, kind of way. This is definitely how the popular media tends to portray disagreements and debates. Polarizing positions this way keeps things simple, easy to follow, and increases readership or TV ratings. Other opinions that may be in the middle, or more sophisticated arguments, are ignored in favor of simplicity and drama.
Alas, our Christian or religious media tends to do the same thing as well. Especially in regards to the Creation-Evolution debate, many Christian writers tend to cast the two positions as absolute opposites with no middle ground. One is either totally for Creationism—which is often portrayed as believing in a literal six-days creation and young earth—or one is totally for Evolutionism—which is portrayed as atheistic, anti-Bible and anti-God. Thus, both sides are seen as totally incompatible and only one side can be right or wrong. There are exceptions, however, and The Battle of Beginnings is one of them.

Written by Dr. Del Ratzsch, Professor of Philosophy at Calvin College, specializing in the philosophy of science, The Battle of Beginnings gives a levelheaded, honest look at the arguments from both sides. Ratzsch contends that both sides frequently misunderstand each other’s positions and theories and thus are criticizing views or positions that each other do not hold. “Creationists widely misunderstand both Darwin’s theory and the theories of his contemporary descendants. Evolutionists widely misconstrue various creationist positions, and frequently raise objections that creationists themselves recognized and responded to decades ago” (page 10), states Ratzsch.

Ratzsch is not defending either Creationism or Evolutionism in this book. As he admits, “I do not pretend to know which is correct” (page 12). His main point is that “large numbers of the critical arguments from each side against the other do not come to much—either because they are themselves defective or because no one holds the views against which they are directed” (12). With that, Ratzsch proceeds to devote three chapters each on Evolutionary Theory and Scientific Creationist Theory. These chapters give the historical background, and briefly introduce or explain the theories, and then tackle the popular misunderstandings of each side held by the other. For example, Ratzsch points out that many popular creationist “refutations” of evolution assumes evolution is linear. But “Darwin’s theory is not linear. … One of the crucial concepts of his theory is divergence, with separate species splitting away from some common ancestor species, thus creating forks — not linear arrangements — in the paths of evolutionary development” (page 39). Hence, some popular creationist refutations of evolution—such as “the missing link” argument—are irrelevant to Darwinian evolution, since “in Darwin’s theory, modern monkeys and modern humans are only cousins, descended from some common, more primitive ancestor … and there is no reason to anticipate intermediates [or links] between the two” (page 41).

On the other hand, evolutionists often do not understand the creationist distinction between macro-evolution and micro-evolution, evolution that cross species and evolution that occurs only within species. “The creationist position … is that microevolution is undeniable” (page 87). But many anti-creationist arguments fail to understand this and see evidence in favor of micro-evolution as evidence for macro-evolution.

If you are seeking a definitive answer or resolution to the creation-evolution debate, you won’t find it in this book. But this book is the FIRST book you should read on the subject as it exposes the popular misconceptions and, hence, false refutations from both sides. What it does provide is a framework for you to discern the debate and find your own answer.

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About Shiao Chong

Editor in Chief of The Banner, official magazine of the Christian Reformed Church (CRC). Formerly CRC Campus Minister serving at York University in Toronto, Canada. (All postings here are my personal opinion and does not necessarily represent the views of the CRC or of The Banner.)
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7 Responses to The Battle of Beginnings: The Creation-Evolution Debate

  1. Pingback: Religion and Science, Faith and Reason | 3-D Christianity

  2. Pingback: BEYOND Evolution vs. Creation | 3-D Christianity

  3. Shiao Chong says:

    Thanks to Chris and Del for this little dialogue.

    I hadn’t responded for various reasons until now. Part of the reason for my hesistancy is that I am not an expert on the topic, so I am glad that Del took time to respond.

    But here’s my response. I liked Ratzsch’s book and made a review of it because it was instrumental to changing my views on the subject. I became a Christian in a conservative Christian background, and we viewed evolution very suspiciously. I read the popular Christian books on the subject that proposed the very things that Del Ratzsch described in his book – e.g. the distinction between micro and macro evolution, the arguments against the missing link between apes and humans, etc. I took those arguments against evolution to be true and correct.

    It was this book, The Battle of Beginnings, that opened my eyes to a different possibility and then meeting other thoughtful Christians who hold to different views on evolution. So, from my personal experience, Ratzsch’s book definitely was right on in terms of the popular conservative Christians’ views on evolution. I still, occassionally, though less now, encounter young Christians at the university who still argue these old arguments.

    So, I believe Ratzsch’s book still has value for today.

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  4. Del Ratzsch says:

    First, thanks to Chris Ellens for the graceful followup and for his comments.

    One further clarification. Speaking of the ‘missing links’ issue Ellens says “the different and potentially legitimate criticism Ratzsch seems to suggest does not exist in fact does.” I’m not sure why Ellens thought that I suggested that. The subsection in question is titled: “Missing links: the human-monkey gap.” That specific alleged gap was the topic of that section, and after pointing out

    (a) that the “human/modern monkey” gap represented a confusion about Darwin –
    (b) that other gaps (common ancestor/modern human, common ancestor/modern monkey) “could perhaps figure into a legitimate criticism of evolutionary theory” –
    and
    (c) that some creationists did not properly distinguish the two,

    I then noted that some gap other than the modern monkey/modern human gap was not the criticism under current discussion and continued on. But pointing out that something is not under discussion is different than suggesting that it does not exist.

    One more comment. With respect to the micro/macro discussion, Ellens might well be correctly representing current creationist views here. The book was first published 15 years ago, and there are some details about which many creationists have altered their views. (The accusation that creationists never change their positions is one which I argue against in one section of Chapter 11.) But prior to the relatively recent popularization of work on gene regulatory systems (and Hox genes and the like) creationists did not hold the positions Ellen cites. In fact for decades most creationists denied micro and macro evolution both – the acceptance of micro evolution while still rejecting macro evolution represented a positive change (associated – I think – in part with the rise in popularity of creationist emphasis on ‘kinds’ as a formal taxonomical category).

    So Ellens may well be right that what I said then may on this particular point not match the thought of some prominent creationists now. But I do not think that I misrepresented creationist thinking at the time of writing.

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  5. Del Ratzsch says:

    Chris Ellens recently posted some comments concerning my book _The Battle of Beginnings_. I would like to respond to some of his remarks which are not quite correct. Following are four quotes from Ellens with responses after each.

    1. “It certainly sounds like the author hasn’t bothered to research the Creationist position, and is relying on hearsay and misinformation.”

    Well over 300 creationist works are cited in the bibliography. Not only did I work through all of them, but not all the creationist works I worked through in researching the book are included. Furthermore, some parts of the book were read in manuscript by some prominent creationists (several of whom I know personally) to ensure that creationism was not being misrepresented. Beyond that, the book contains over 400 footnotes, many of those 400 containing multiple references. In just Chapter 4 alone – “Darwin’s Theory: popular creationist misunderstandings” – there are 76 footnotes, many of them with multiple citations – e.g., footnote #40 in Chapter 4 cites 45 different published creationist works citing 83 different passages in those 45 works. And again, that is only one single footnote. The “hasn’t bothered to research the Creationist position” accusation was not quite accurate.

    2. “I personally have never seen anything in Creationist literature that assumes Darwin’s theory is linear.”

    On p. 40 I note: “several of the popular ‘refutations’ of evolutionary theory presuppose and are relevant only to linear pictures – not to Darwin’s theory or to other current evolutionary pictures.” I then specifically discuss seven such ‘refutations,’ giving 11 footnotes in which are cited 42 creationist works with references to 49 specific passages. Ellens may not have encountered such positions in creationist literature, but they are pretty clearly there.

    3. “The ‘missing link’ argument actually came from Darwin himself…”

    Chaplain Chong quoted accurately from my book (p. 41) as follows: “in Darwin’s theory, modern monkeys and modern humans are only cousins, descended from some common, more primitive ancestor … and there is no reason to anticipate intermediates between the two.” The issue here was links between humans and _modern monkeys_ – to expect such (as some popular creationists have done) is to misunderstand Darwinian theory. In the very next sentence, I said: “According to Darwin, intermediates would have to exist between that ancient common ancestor and modern monkeys, and between the ancient common ancestor and modern humans. Absence of _those_ fossil intermediate could perhaps figure into a legitimate criticism of evolutionary theory, but that would be a _different_ criticism.” Ellens’s comment simply missed the point under discussion.

    Incidentally, the quote Ellens gives from Darwin’s _Origin_ – which Ellens takes not actually from Darwin himself but from Sarfati – is not quite what Darwin actually says. The qualification “perhaps” which Darwin includes in his statement is simply dropped without comment by Sarfati and is thus also missing from Ellens’s quote. In complex contexts like this one details, accuracy, and checking original sources are important.

    4. “The author suggests that Creationists accept the validity of small (micro) changes but not large (macro) evolution.” Ellens then claims that I do not understand the micro/macro distinction and that I misconstrue creationist theory here. In that charge, he cites Sarfati. Sarfati and other creationists hold a variety of positions on a variety of issues, but one cannot cite just one creationist author, pronounce that to be what “Creationists accept” and imply that attributing any other position to creationists is misconstruing creationism. In fact, on the issue of creationists and the micro/macro distinction, I give 6 footnotes, citing 42 creationist works by more than 20 creationist authors, giving 53 passages within those 42 works where creationists hold the position I attribute to them.

    I certainly do welcome responsible criticism of my work, but I hope that my critics read my work carefully first.

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    • Chris Ellens says:

      I stand corrected. Dr. Ratzsch is clearly very knowledgeable on this topic and has certainly done his homework. Having not read his book I was guilty of the very offense of which I accused him, and for my slander I sincerely apologize.

      Regarding the quote from Darwin, yes — my bad — in laziness I copied and pasted the quote directly from Sarfati’s website. For anyone interested in reading the original, it can be found in <a href="http://www.literature.org/authors/darwin-charles/the-origin-of-species/chapter-09.html&quot; The Origin of Species (Ch. 9 – On the Imperfection of the Geological Record). Yes, Darwin says “… this, perhaps, is the most obvious and gravest objection …”, which I would interpret as his allowing for the possibility that other graver or more obvious objections might be raised against the theory. Leaving out the word “perhaps” doesn’t in any way misrepresent what Darwin was saying.

      In his rebuttal, Ratzsch wrote: ” ‘ … Absence of _those_ fossil intermediate could perhaps figure into a legitimate criticism of evolutionary theory, but that would be a _different_ criticism.’ ” Ellens’s comment simply missed the point under discussion.” No, I didn’t miss the point — that was exactly my point: the different and potentially legitimate criticism Ratzsch seems to suggest does not exist in fact does, and that criticism comes not only from creationists but from evolutionists themselves, beginning with Darwin.

      Regarding the micro/macroevolution statement, a quick search reveals that at least two other prominent creationist websites not associated with Sarfati also caution against the use of this terminology because it inadequately represents the creationist objection (creationwiki.org and answersingenesis.org).

      In the end though, I am still not convinced: If Ratzsch’s thesis is that the Creation-Evolution debate is confounded by an unfortunate array of half-baked and obsolete assertions on both sides then he has apparently succeeded. If, on the other hand, his intent was to provide an unbiased review of how the strongest arguments on both sides stack up against each other, then in my opinion (and based solely on what I have read here on this blog as being representative of his work) he has fallen short.

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  6. Chris Ellens says:

    Sadly, the quotes you’ve provided suggest to me that this book is probably not worth reading. It certainly sounds like the author hasn’t bothered to research the Creationist position, and is relying on hearsay and misinformation.

    I personally have never seen anything in the Creationist literature that assumes Darwin’s theory is linear. The “missing link” argument actually came from Darwin himself, who wrote in the Origin of Species: “Why is not every geological formation and every stratum full of such intermediate links? Geology assuredly does not reveal any such finely graduated organic chain; and this is the most obvious and serious objection which can be urged against the theory.” (see also http://creation.com/refuting-evolution-chapter-3-the-links-are-missing)

    The author also tries to defend Creationists using the micro/macro evolution argument, but apparently doesn’t understand it himself. The author suggests that Creationists accept the validity of small (micro) changes but not large (macro) evolution. In fact, Creationists distinguish between changes that require an increase in genetic information, vs changes that result from a sorting, and typically loss of genetic information. In the appendix of Refuting Evolution, Jonathan Sarfati writes: “We are hardpressed to find examples of even ‘micro’ increases in information, although such changes should be frequent if evolution were true. Conversely, we do observe quite ‘macro’ changes that involve no new information, e.g. when a control gene is switched on or off.” (see http://creation.com/arguments-we-think-creationists-should-not-use)

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