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Creation or creationism

Observations on science

The other day I went along to see the Darwin exhibition at the Natural History Museum in London.

There's a mock-up of the HMS Beagle, in which Darwin made his famous voyage, and collections of items he brought back to England. There are fossils, and stuffed finches, and samples of his notebooks; there are even amplified sounds of birds, bringing the South American jungles to South Kensington.

In place of honour there's a pair of mockingbirds that Darwin found on the Galapagos Islands. He realised that these birds were different from others of the same species he had noted on the mainland of South America: larger, with longer bills and darker feathering. So it dawned on him that species were not fixed and permanent. Every kind of life form has the capacity to change, to mutate through blind natural selection.

This seems to fly in the face of Genesis, the Bible story that explains how the world and all its creatures, including our first parents, were created by God in six days; and tells how all species, including our first parents, were created fixed and immutable from the very beginning. Taking the word of the Bible literally, some scholars have worked out that this occurred about 5,000 years ago. This literalist version of the creation story is widely known as creationism.

The organisers of the Darwin exhibition have displayed some historical facts and quotations illustrating the clash between Darwin's theory of evolution and religious belief in the Bible story, a conflict that has been going on ever since Darwin published his Origin of Species in 1859. But there's a quotation on display, by Pope John Paul II, which tells a different story. John Paul insisted that the Catholic Church sees no essential contradiction between evolutionary science and Christianity. He was saying, in effect, that the Book of Genesis is not a scientific textbook. Genesis, he was saying, is about symbolic truth rather than scientific facts. The symbolic truth of Genesis is about creation: that God is the creator and origin of all things.

The difference between believing in God's creation and believing in creationism, then, comes down to how we read. It is possible, by reading Genesis with an eye to its poetic values, to believe in creation and in Darwin's theory as the providential process whereby creation occurred. So, in 2009, a year in which we celebrate the bicentenary of Darwin's birth, there's no reason why those people who believe in the God of the Bible shouldn't celebrate Darwin's remarkable theory, and at the same time rejoice in the truth and mystery of God's creation.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The destruction of Gaza