Notes from Genesis and the Big Bang

Tom von Alten   March 3, 1994

In an interesting and charming account, woven around Bible verses enriched with a selection of ancient scholarship, and infused with the language and understandings of modern science, Gerald L. Schroeder elegantly answers my question, "how can one reconcile the account of Genesis with the findings of science?" He observes that "the Bible talks in the language of man, the average man," but that there are deeper meanings available to those who study carefully. He seeks to show how this everyday language was used to accurately describe the formation of the universe, and life on earth, and how the appropriate interpretation of Genesis is wholly consistent with what we have come to know, and to infer about our beginnings, through science.

He works his way through each step of creation, from before the Big Bang to the making of Adam, showing how a reasonable elaboration of biblical language (reinforced and amplified by his A-team of historical commentators: Onkelos [c. 150 AD], Rashi [1040-1105], Maimonides [1135-1204] and Nahmanides [1194-1270]) is telling the same story as the work of ("such as") Albert Einstein, Steven Weinberg, Stephen Hawking, Edwin Taylor, John Archibald Wheeler and Alan Guth (physicists and cosmologists), A.G.W. Cameron, Frank Press and Raymond Siever (geophysicists), George Wald and Francis Crick (molecular chemists and biologists).

Ultimately, he argues that there are two events which science does not (and therefore cannot) adequately explain, and which instead are evidence of divine intervention.

  1. The inflationary epoch of the universe, ("by current estimates, from 10-35 to 10-32 seconds after the beginning") before the Big Bang, during which the universe changed in size from "fractions of a micron to the grand size of a grapefruit."
  2. Life appears so rapidly on the young Earth, that it "cannot be attributed to random chemical reactions."

I don't have much to say about his first point. I'm not a cosmologist, and in spite of reading Hawking's book, there's a fair amount that isn't quite clear to me. There is always a "before then, what?" to be asked, and origin stories have always begun with "In the beginning." I find descriptions of the seconds surrounding the Big Bang to be pretty incredible, with or without divine intervention.

His second point is not particularly well made, in my opinion, although he may convince many of his readers. I am irritated by his referral to a span of 500 million years as "immediate," even though he sometimes remembers to qualify it with "almost." I'm also irritated by his proselytizing, trying to convince us that we should be concerned that we are complacent in thinking that scientists have solved all the puzzles.

"The lesson is that the trend of thought in this controversial study of life's origin has very often been based on poorly researched science presented as fact by a few noted personalities." Schroeder does a fair amount of this himself, and his research is broad enough that I'm inclined to think he's doing it on purpose rather than to think he doesn't know any better.

For the opposition, scientists supporting non-biblical theories of origin, he uses Alexander Ivanovich Oparin, published in 1936, and Stanley Miller's experiments of the early 50's. Has there been so little further thought since then? Schroeder's copyright is 1990. [1] It is "world-famous biologist George Wald" who is made to speak for "them," and say that "life is an inevitable product of chemistry" in Schroeder's words. Wald's statement sounds like overdoing it, and I get nervous when the enemy is "them." His protest that to disagree with him requires "a mockery of statistical analysis" is ironic and irritating. It's rhetoric like this that gives statistics a bad name.

I'm also disappointed that although he's apparently read Stephen Jay Gould's work (it's cited in Ch. 9's notes), he never addresses any of it head-on. It isn't a very noble thesis that has to hide from the best of one's adversaries, and instead pick and choose to find a satisfactory straw man.

Schroeder's support is Harold Morowitz's work in 1968, in which Morowitz "presented computations of the time required for random chemical reactions to form a bacterium," which reportedly used "optimistically rapid rates of reactions" and found that the time required was greater than the "15-billion-year age of the universe." The fossil record shows life at over 3.3 billion years ago, "less than 500 million years after the appearance of the first sedimentary rocks" so it beat the odds by a long way.

"It is statistically improbable, in fact, essentially impossible, that random events produced this life in such relatively short time." Now, why does this make me think of that quote about poor research, presented as fact? He forgets to include the modifier on "impossible" a few times, also.

I can only hope that Morowitz did a better job of statistical analysis, but I suspect Schroeder is quoting the best of it. "There are 20 different types of amino acids used in forming proteins. The probability of duplicating, by chance, two identical protein chains, each with 100 amino acids, is 1 chance in 20100... or 10130," compared to "1018 seconds in the 15 billion years since the Big Bang." His further elaboration about just how improbable this is does not add any new argument.

100 amino acids seems like a lot to start out with, doesn't it? If we only needed 20 amino acids, we're down to 1:1026, and if the resulting protein is self-replicating in a significant way, than we don't have to deal with "by chance" in the same way. And we don't need to reach a "probable condition." Without being flippant, we just needed to "get lucky." And we don't need to start by producing a whole bacterium, either.

He does not include in his calculation any estimate of how many earth-like planets there might be in the universe. Such an estimate is a multiplier for the probability of rare events in planetary history. When we marvel at the stars in a moonless wilderness sky, we can not begin to sense the multiplicity of galaxies of stars that this universe we inhabit comprises.

He dismisses the hypothesis of an extraterrestrial source of life just as succinctly, with the same weight of evidence - Morowitz' claim that the universe is not old enough for "unguided, random reactions to produce life."

He uses a single, far from rigorous, statistical argument, and applies proof by repeated assertion. While it is apparently true today that "paleontologists, archaeologists, and mathematicians alike find no adequate theory based on phenomena known in nature to account for the immediate (sic) appearance of life on Earth," it is also true that many are still pursuing answers with meaningful scientific endeavors.

He also confounds the statistics of the apparent unity of life - the similarities found in the biochemistry of very different kinds of organisms - with the statistics of the initiation of life, two very different considerations. The theory of evolution without divine intervention is quite capable of explaining why we share the metabolic process of fermentation with yeast.

The fundamental and repeated error he makes is equating science not knowing the answer (whatever that means) with there not being an answer consistent with our known or to-be-known science. To him, the harmony he has found between the Bible and modern science is strong evidence for placing "the Bible in the realm of the mystic," a prescient record of what we have so "recently rediscovered." I am impressed with his style and writing, but not with his scientific argument.

What follows deals with points that Schroeder makes which are important to his book, but not central to his thesis.

Schroeder provides an explanation of how the 6 days of the 1st chapter of Genesis could be exactly equal to the apparent 15 billion year age of the universe: relativity. "The passage of time on any one star could be as different from the passage of time on other stars as six days is different from 15 billion years."

In his appendix, he gives the formula for relativistic time passage:
     delta(t) = delta(t0) * sqrt[1 - (v/c)2]

Plug in 6 days and 15 billion years, and we get:
     v = c * sqrt(1 - 1.2*10-24)

which works out to 99.99999999999999999999995% of the speed of light, less than one part in a million billion billion away. Certainly God could be riding a wave this close to the speed of light... how does that compare to the detected or suspected edge of the universe? It's odd that after making such a big deal out of this, and providing the simple formula, he doesn't do the algebra. I suppose it's justified by keeping this at a "popular" level. Algebra has never been all that popular.

What of the problem of plants showing up before the sun and moon? While the first, brief verses of Genesis were enriched with full dissection and amplification, cycles of star birth and death packed into half a sentence, and here there are many sentences, he is not at first so careful about dissecting each phrase in [1:14-18]: "On the fourth day the heavens cleared..." The heavens cleared??

From the KJV: "And God said, Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years: And let them be for lights in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth: and it was so. And God made two great lights, the greater light to rule the night: he made the stars also. And God set them in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth, And to rule over the day and over the night, and to divide the light from the darkness: and God saw that it was good. And the evening and the morning were the fourth day."

Later, he does address this problem. He distinguishes luminaries from light, and notes "Prior to the appearance of abundant plant life, the Earth's atmosphere was probably clouded with vapors of the primeval atmosphere... Therefore, individual luminaries were not distinguishable." Later, "The early plant life actually helped clear the atmosphere..." God is speaking about the Earthly viewpoint, which also justifies calling the moon a light (i.e. luminary). Not a bad plot device, but it does make that relativistic sleight of hand for the 6 days somewhat problematic. It helps to have the leading character be omnipotent.

However, grass and other angiosperms cannot be considered "early plant life." They are the "latest and greatest" plants. He points out that the first evidence of life is estimated to be 3.3 billion years ago, and that "free oxygen" is evidenced by sediments less than 2 billion years old and not in older sediments. This is around the time (according to him) of the appearance of fossil evidence of an abundance of oxygen-producing blue-green algae.

These two datings are not juxtaposed by him, but rather are used to illustrate different points. But 1.3 billion years to go from "first life" to the first photosynthetic prokaryotes is unquestionably a gradual process. If God was intervening, he did it in the subtlest of ways.

A 1985 college biology text (Invitation to Biology) does not follow quite the same chronology, but I'm not up on the latest thinking to say which dates are more widely accepted, Schroeder's or these. An excerpt of its timetable, in millions of years ago:

      Origin of life
Age of marine invertebrates
First primitive fishes... invasion of land by plants
Rise of fishes... Earliest vascular plants
Age of fishes... amphibians appear
Age of amphibians. First reptiles...
...possible origin of flowering plants...
First dinosaurs...
Dinosaurs' zenith... Birds appear...

Schroeder seems to want us to believe that Genesis (either the literal version, or one amplified by deep scholarship) agrees completely with evolutionary biology. This is giving Genesis credit for an extraordinary richness of detail that is just not there. Here's the sequence and taxonomy of Genesis, in toto:

(with the "heavens clearing" between the first and second group).

While the actual dates maybe subject to revision, scientific evidence will be less equivocal about the sequence. The fact is, there is almost no similarity between these two accounts. They tell different stories, entirely.

He talks a good deal about the fossil record and what is and is not there. But just how likely is it that we would find a certain organism represented in a fossil? There are plenty of extant species which we haven't found or characterized yet, let alone the lucky ones who were recorded as fossils.

Most organisms don't get to leave anything for posterity - they are wiped clean off the face of the earth, as it were, ashes to ashes and dust to dust. The fossil record is and always will be an extremely limited view into the past, for as much as we have been able to infer from it.

His claim that the punctuations in the development of life are "all marked by statements of God," again gives Genesis credit for much more detail than it has. The nature of the punctuation and the description in Genesis are not coherent, as I've described above. If nothing else, the end of the age of dinosaurs as the result of a large meteor hitting the Earth certainly seems worthy of note, for example. Yet the event which may have been pivotal in allowing mammals, and ultimately us, to rule the Earth is not even hinted at.

Interestingly, he accepts and cites the evidence for lengthy hominid evolution beyond the 57 centuries before Adam, and speculates that 40,000 years ago (400 centuries!), the development of speech may have accounted for a rapid increase in innovation. God created man, and then he "made him in his image" with a soul. Not a bad rationalization of the two accounts of Genesis.

Another Biblical problem - life span - is touched upon but not dealt with. Relativity seems too big a hammer for this one. Methushelah's 969 years are accepted as fact, and the variation from current observation tells us "that it is in accord with biblical tradition for changes to occur within a given species and that these changes can be the result of environmental influences." Human biology apparently was not a strong interest of Schroeder's.

In the end, it is clear that Schroeder is convinced, himself, and that an informed interpretation of Genesis allows certain passages to be reconciled with science's version of the Beginning. It still takes a good sized leap of faith to say that Genesis and science agree completely, or that the divine intervention described in Genesis resolves scientific conundrums that are otherwise unresolvable.

Endnote added 7/10/95

In fact, Stanley Miller has continued to work in the field, and Science News (Jul 1, 1995, vol.148, p.7), in an article titled "Early Earth may have had two key RNA bases," reports on his recent work.

The article describes experimental work demonstrating a possible mechanism by which the two pyrimidine bases (cytosine and uracil) could have been formed in the "primordial soup." (Previous work had shown how the other two bases would form readily under simulated early Earth conditions.)

"As scientists try to piece together the path of life's chemical history, Gerald F. Joyce, a molecular biologist at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif., calls this latest report 'another brick in the road.'"