Review: The Genesis Enigma
Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Work under Review
Andrew Parker, evolutionary biologist and Honorary Research Fellow at Green Templeton College at Oxford University, is perhaps best known in scientific circles for his “light-switch theory” (Parker 2003), the proposition that the evolution of vision coupled with predation was an important driver of the “Cambrian Explosion” half a billion years ago. In his new book, The Genesis Enigma: Why The Bible is Scientifically Accurate, Parker joins the ranks of those scientists who are weary of having their faith be represented by anti-evolutionists and having their science claimed by atheists. Parker’s plea is that faith in God and an acceptance of modern science is indeed possible without holding on to a naïve biblical literalism. That is the good part of the Genesis Enigma. Unfortunately, Parker takes on far more than can be sufficiently addressed in his 280-page book, leaving both conservative and progressive Christian readers wholly unconvinced.
Parker’s main premise is that when the book of Genesis is read figuratively, the events appear to match our modern reconstruction of earth history. According to Parker:
when the biblical text is taken literally, it is left in the wake of advancing science. But when it is read figuratively, it not only keeps pace with the hottest science, it precedes or heralds it. (p 130)
In other words, the creation chronology of Genesis describes events that took the scientific community several thousand years to identify and piece together. This then is Parker’s “Genesis Enigma”: how is it that an ancient pre-scientific text could accurately describe the early geological and biological history of earth? Parker sees in this match between scripture and science possible evidence of divine inspiration. This claim alone is complex and controversial enough — and the argument should really have stopped there.
Unfortunately for the coherence of the book, Parker takes it several steps further by seeking to convince the reader that Genesis is not only scientifically accurate but that the entire Bible is historically reliable. The resulting read is an odd mixture of biblical archaeology, paleontology, cosmology, evolutionary biology, and theology, all interspersed with long but superficial reviews of the history of science, many of which actually detract from the main argument.
The book begins with a brief summary of the development of the biblical text, in essence arguing that despite minor copying errors and manuscript variations the version we have today is reliable. Parker’s selective treatment is reminiscent of many popular conservative Christian apologetics books and should leave any reader — believer or nonbeliever — unconvinced. Unfortunately, this section is followed by an equally meager assessment of biblical archaeology. The reader is asked to conclude that the Bible is historically accurate based on a few archaeological discoveries that allegedly corroborate the existence of a handful of biblical sites and figures. However, even a casual glimpse through the latest volumes of the Biblical Archaeology Review makes it clear that the correspondence between actual archaeological discovery and biblical accounts is much more tenuous than Parker would like us to believe.
The heart of the book follows the creation events of the first 25 verses of the book of Genesis based on the King James version. Each event is linked to an actual physical, geological, or biological milestone in the 4.55-billion–year history of the earth. At first, Parker’s figurative reading of the text is relatively straightforward: the creation of light (Genesis 1:3) actually describes the formation of our sun accompanied by the coalescing of the planets and other bodies of the solar system. Parker’s figurative reading begins to take much greater liberties on the third day of creation when he argues that the appearance of “grass, herb, and fruit trees” corresponds with the evolution of photosynthetic life in the oceans.
Continuing this free-spirited reading, the fourth day is characterized not by the creation of the sun, moon, and stars, but by the evolution of sight by the first multicellular animals. In a discussion reminiscent of interpretations by old-earth creationist Hugh Ross that Genesis 1:14–17 describes not the creation but the first visible appearance of stellar objects to an observer on earth, Parker argues that this verse stresses the appearance of sight in animals. He supports this interpretation with a thorough discussion of the seminal impact of vision, his “light-switch theory”, on the evolution of life on earth.
Parker develops this line of reasoning further for Genesis 1:20–21, the creation of abundant life in the oceans. He sees this as a reference to the so-called Cambrian explosion, during which most of the phyla of animals first diversified in the oceans. Parker concludes his analysis with a brief nod to Genesis 1:24–25, seeing in it a description of the evolution of land animals before the final appearance of humans.
Parker’s figurative reading in light of the evolution of vision is interesting and creative. However, it is also a great example of how such approaches are prone to reflect the biases and wishes of the reader rather than the intended meaning of the text. Conservative Christians will criticize Parker for not taking the language of Genesis seriously enough, whereas progressives will ask why he perceives such a need to find congruence between the text and modern science. Experienced science-and-religion readers will also be baffled by the near-complete lack of treatment of previous scholarly works on this subject. If Parker’s goal was to add a new serious voice to the now voluminous creationism/evolution discussion, he should have spent more time discussing contemporary issues relevant to his interpretation.
A central mantra of the anti-evolutionists has long been that atheism and evolution are two sides of the same coin. Parker’s voice as a wellknown and respected scientist and believer aids in dispelling this myth. Unfortunately, it also reinforces another: namely that a Christian cannot accept the findings of modern science without also stretching the bounds of scriptural interpretation to its utmost limit.
Parker A. 2003. In the Blink of an Eye. New York: Basic Books.
Alexander Glass is an invertebrate paleontologist specializing in the evolutionary history of brittlestars. He is an instructor in the Division of Earth and Ocean Sciences in the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University. He spends his free time obsessively thinking about religion, evolution, and pseudoscience.
Division of Earth and Ocean Sciences
Durham NC 27708