When Charles Darwin described evolution as the result of “natural selection,” he was drawing an analogy to the breeding of animals, which involves artificial selection. It was well known that animal breeders could make changes in a species by breeding stock with certain traits. Darwin’s hypothesis was that changes also occur spontaneously in nature, and that changes contributing to the survival of an organism in its environment are more likely to be passed on to the next generation.
Darwin proposed that natural selection might account not only for changes within a species, but also for the evolution of diverse species. Thus, the word “selection” had a different meaning for Darwin than for animal breeders, as they select animals for breeding with the purpose of improving a trait. Darwin conceived of “natural selection” as a natural process resulting in the greater survival of organisms that are fit for their environment.
Darwin did not argue that natural selection explains the origin of life, for the theory of natural selection only applies once there is life. This is why his book is entitled The Origin of Species. Natural selection is not an alternative explanation for the creation of life. It explains only the evolution of diverse species on earth after there is life on earth.
Scientists may some day agree on a theory explaining the chemistry of life, although there is no such agreement now. Yet, even with such agreement, the theory would only explain how life began and not why life began. Science is about causation (how), not purpose (why). Scientists defending the theory of natural selection rightly argue that this theory does not offer any explanation as to the purpose of life or the purpose of diverse species. The theory of natural selection simply describes the process by which diverse species have evolved.
It is a mistake, therefore, to think that a scientific explanation of causation proves there is no purpose. Science is always asking how things are as they are. Its method is limited to that inquiry. Science does not ask why things are as they are. Science tells us how life, once created, evolved as diverse species. Science does not, and cannot, tell us why there is life. As a method of investigation, science looks only for physical causes. As a form of knowledge, science does not offer any reasons for the causes that it identifies.
For questions of purpose, for reasons as to why life is at all, for explanations of why we are here and what our lives mean, we turn to literature — to religious scriptures, to great stories, to historical accounts — to parables, poems, and plays.
The biblical story of creation does not explain how life began, but why life began. It tells a story in which God creates a world that is good. The story does not explain God’s purpose in creating life, but certainly implies that life has a good purpose. As with any story, there are events that happen, but the point of the story is not to explain the physical causes of these events. The point of the story is that there is a good reason for these events.
The genesis story communicates to those “with ears to hear” the reason for creation, for life, for the earth as we know it. The genesis story is not about physical causation, and thus there is no reason to defend it against a scientific explanation of natural selection. The genesis story is about purpose and meaning.
The biblical story of creation affirms why there is life, not how life diversified. It confirms that life is good, that humanity has a good purpose, and that creation is worth caring about. We read this story from scripture to remind ourselves that we should care for the earth and all its life, that the earth story is our story as well, and that the story of nature and our story is also God’s story.