The big debate: Creation v evolution

With all the science and technology that exists in the world today, it is strange that the system behind life itself still largely remains a puzzle.

When Charles Darwin set off on his five-year voyage on board the HMS Beagle, he came up with a revolutionary theory which would be seen by many to be scientific fact.

This year marks Darwin's 200th birthday and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his work, On the Origin of Species, which set about establishing evolution and natural selection as the explanations behind the development of life on earth.

Not everyone welcomed the idea that humans had descended from ape-like creatures or that the world was much older than it seems in the Old Testament; particularly those who still believed that God made the world in seven days and to his own image.

More than 150 years after Darwin's voyage, the debate about evolution versus creationism continues, not least here in Northamptonshire.

Today, the Chronicle & Echo speaks to Northampton people about how the conflict and debate has continued into the 21st century.

Evolutionism

Dr Jeff Ollerton, an ecology lecturer at The University of Northampton, is no stranger to defending Darwin's theories against the ideas of creationists.

About three years ago he took part in a public debate with Australian John Mackay, international director of Creation Research, as part of Mr Mackay's eight-week lecture tour of the UK.

Dr Ollerton recalled that it was one of the most difficult things he had done.

"He came to it very much by quoting from The Bible," he said. "It was very much smoke and mirrors and nothing to grab hold of."

But is he surprised that creationism still lives on today?

Dr Ollerton said: "The scientist in me says 'yes I'm incredibly surprised that the weight of evidence is as such cast aside', but as a person, as a man, the human capacity for ignorance, stupidity and self delusion never ceases to amaze me.

"But there is a high number of practising Christians and Jews who are evolutionary scientists."

He continued: "The idea is that you need to be an atheist to be an evolutionary biologist but it is simply not true. Some Christians interpret it as God creating the universe and allowing it to run its natural course to the laws of physics."

Dr Ollerton explained that Darwin came up with the mechanics of how evolution had worked; and the theories still have relevance in modern science.

"On a very human level, understanding resistance to drugs by diseases is natural selection in practice. There are individuals who have resistance to drugs like penicillin."

Darwin's theories could also help explain some of the new species which continue to appear, he said.

"Darwin is known as one of the most iconic figures in science. If you show a picture of Darwin with his beard and heavy brow, most people will recognise him.

"Things like looking at fossil records and seeing the sequence of fossil records can show the sequence of life."

Creationism

IF there is one thing bound to bother creationists, it could be the idea that believing the biblical story of how the earth came about is completely unscientific.

Speak to some members of the Northants Creation Group and they will explain there are aspects of evolutionary theory that do not make scientific sense.

The group, which was started five years ago, now has more than 100 members and holds bi-monthly meetings at the Abbey Centre, in East Hunsbury.

Co-founder and chairman Dr Farid Abou-Rahme, from Grange Park, is also author of the book, And God Said.

Dr Abou-Rahme, who works as an engineer, said: "It does make you upset that people are not really researching or looking at the subject."

He explained that the evidence in the biblical creation story points to the need for an initial "designer".

"If you look at DNA, the amount of information in that first cell is unbelievable. It couldn't have come by accident or by chance.

"You need a designer to put in all of that information.

"You can't assume you could have repeated mutations happening billions of times, it is a ridiculous aspiration but people stick to it because they believe it is an alternative to believing in God."

He continued: "The Bible teaching is that we are created in the image of God. Look at the human body and you will realise we are all connected.

"A lot of people are saying that creationism is more scientific, but it is not discussed. I find it hard even to go to any schools."

Speaking about the "seven day" creation of the world and how that could be possible, the group's co-founder Lewis Houston said: "If you believe in God, could your God create the world in seven days?

"If someone said would you make for me an Edwardian dining chair I would draw it up and measure it up and could make it in three or four days. Once that is done I could do the next one in two days. If I could put a production line in, I could churn them out in a factory. If you link that up to someone who believes in God of an infinite power, from a philosophical point of view, where would be the problem?"

He added: "A worrying aspect of this whole debate is that if you are an atheist you are seen to have a balanced view, but if you have a faith you are not to be trusted."

FitzRoy was an inspiration

Back in 19th century Northamptonshire, a young boy grew up at Wakefield Lodge, in Potterspury, who would go on to play a vital part in Darwin's famous voyage on The Beagle.

So important was the part that Robert FitzRoy (pictured) played in the whole adventure that author James Taylor firmly believes that without him, Darwin may not be the household name that he is today.

It seems the commonly-held view that the voyage was Darwin's idea is simply not true; in fact the pioneering meteorologist FitzRoy was the man who arranged for Darwin to come on board as the ship's naturalist.

Mr Taylor, who lives in London, has recently published a book entitled The Voyage of the Beagle, which discusses the two men and the epic trip they took on foreign waters.

He explained that FitzRoy's contribution should not be underestimated.

"What I tried to do was to redress the balance. Darwin, yes, is brilliant but generally without FitzRoy there is no Charles Darwin as we know him today."

Darwin – who was among the founding members of the Northamptonshire Natural History Society – became friends with FitzRoy on board, even though the pair are believed to have occasionally had their disagreements.

Mr Taylor said: "Darwin was brilliant in that he had an open, inquiring mind. This was definitely assisted and helped by FitzRoy who constantly cared for his welfare."

FitzRoy had been on board the first Beagle voyage to Tierra del Fuego, in South America, when he was unexpectedly called upon to take command, after the ship's captain Pringle Stokes shot himself.

When some Fuegian natives made off with one of the ship's boats, the crew made an unsuccessful attempt to take the boat back and eventually took a small group of Fuegians hostage.

FitzRoy came up with a plan to take the captives back to England, "civilise" them and make them Christians, before returning them to South America where they could start a settlement.

The return mission is thought to be the real reason behind the second Beagle voyage.

Mr Taylor said: "People seem to think it was about Charles Darwin but it wasn't. The real reason was FitzRoy's intention to return these Fuegians and set up this settlement. As part of that, Darwin becomes involved."

After the Beagle voyage, FitzRoy not only got married but also converted to fundamental Christian beliefs.

So he eventually greeted some of Darwin's theories with some displeasure, even turning up with a Bible to a public debate in Oxford and pleading with the audience to "believe God rather than man".

After a lifetime battling depression, FitzRoy eventually committed suicide in 1865.

Mr Taylor commented: "For FitzRoy we were made in the image of God, who made all living things together and we did not change and did not evolve.

"I don't think there is any doubt he was racked with guilt, even though he was so positive during the Beagle voyage.There was no reason to suggest that he would take every word of the Bible as true."