A Tale of Three Creationists, Part 1
Today we are pleased to welcome Dr. Dennis Venema as a BioLogos Senior Fellow. Dennis has recently contributed a number of important pieces on comparative genomics and human evolution, including several blogs for BioLogos (e.g. here and here) and this article in Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith (PSCF). In addition to his latest BioLogos essay critiquing Reasons to Believe’s representation of human/chimpanzee genetic data, Dennis has also published a critical review of Stephen C. Meyer’s Signature in the Cell in PSCF. These latter two works are impressive not only in their clarity and careful attention to scientific accuracy, but in their tone of respect for the ministries and individuals in question. Dennis a gifted thinker and writer on matters of science and faith, but also an award-winning biology teacher—he won the 2008 College Biology Teaching Award from the National Association of Biology Teachers. He and his wife Val enjoy outdoor activities with their son and daughter in the Pacific Northwest. Welcome, Dennis! We’re glad to have you. The picture at right, by the way, is not of Dennis, it is Todd Wood, the focus of Dennis's essay today. Clicking on Dennis's name, above, will give you a little more detail about him.
As a faculty member at an evangelical Christian university, I have the privilege of interacting with colleagues from all over North America. Shortly after becoming acquainted with one colleague, I realized that we have a lot in common. For starters, we’re both believers, and we both teach at Christian institutions. We also have very similar research backgrounds in biology: genetics, cell biology, genomics, that sort of thing, although my colleague has done more work directly relevant to evolutionary biology. We have both written articles on human/chimpanzee comparative genomics intended to inform believers of the challenge this new field of study presents for traditional interpretations of Genesis, and both of us have been criticized by other believers for doing so. Both of us feel that evolution is a robust scientific theory with a huge body of supporting evidence. Both of us have written critiques of folks in the Intelligent Design movement, as well as organizations like Reasons to Believe.
In fact, I can think of only one major difference between us: my colleague is a Young Earth Creationist, whereas I am an Evolutionary Creationist. His name is Todd Wood, and he is a faculty member at Bryan College in Dayton, Tennessee.
Todd has fascinated me right from when I first became aware of him in 2007. He is probably best known for his very controversial stance (for a Young Earth Creationist) on the evidence for evolution. In Todd’s own words, evolution is solid science:
Evolution is not a theory in crisis. It is not teetering on the verge of collapse. It has not failed as a scientific explanation. There is evidence for evolution, gobs and gobs of it. It is not just speculation or a faith choice or an assumption or a religion. It is a productive framework for lots of biological research, and it has amazing explanatory power. There is no conspiracy to hide the truth about the failure of evolution. There has really been no failure of evolution as a scientific theory. It works, and it works well. (Emphasis in the original, which is found here.)
Not surprisingly, this stance attracted a lot of attention, both from believers and non-believers. Todd spent several weeks thereafter on his blog discussing his views and responding to his readers (see here, here and here). Along the way, he felt the need to clarify his Young Earth Creationist views, as apparently some folks doubted his sincerity:
I've begun to notice a strange undercurrent of folks proposing that I'm not really a young earth creationist. One especially amusing person suggested that I was stupid, possibly bipolar, or just a liar…
Lest my creationist credentials be doubted, let me be blunt:
I believe that God created everything that you see in six consecutive days around 6000 years ago.
I believe that Adam and Eve were the very first humans and were directly created by God…(Entire text may be found here)
Todd goes on to list several more points to establish his fidelity to Young Earth Creationism beyond question.
So, what to make of this? How can Todd, committed as he is to a Young Earth view of creation, accept that evolution is valid science? Or, to put the shoe on the other foot, how can Todd, a trained scientist, hold to a model of the cosmos that contravenes so much well-established science?
The answer to the second question is relatively straightforward. Todd holds to Young Earth Creationism because he feels it is what Scripture teaches. In his own words, he rejects evolution by faith:
Creationist students, listen to me very carefully: There is evidence for evolution, and evolution is an extremely successful scientific theory. That doesn't make it ultimately true, and it doesn't mean that there could not possibly be viable alternatives. It is my own faith choice to reject evolution, because I believe the Bible reveals true information about the history of the earth that is fundamentally incompatible with evolution. I am motivated to understand God's creation from what I believe to be a biblical, creationist perspective. Evolution itself is not flawed or without evidence. Please don't be duped into thinking that somehow evolution itself is a failure. Please don't idolize your own ability to reason. Faith is enough. If God said it, that should settle it. Maybe that's not enough for your scoffing professor or your non-Christian friends, but it should be enough for you. (Emphasis in the original)
Thus for Todd, a faithful reading of Scripture disallows accepting that evolution is true, even if evolution is a successful scientific theory.
The first question, as to why Todd accepts the scientific evidence for evolution, is also relatively straightforward: he’s done his homework. In 2006, Todd published a very thorough paper (PDF) discussing the then-recent comparison of the completed chimpanzee genome with the human genome. If you haven’t read this paper before, I highly recommend it. Todd is clear in this paper that “common design” - the idea that the similarities we see in nature are not due to common ancestry but rather to independent special creation events by the same designer - is not a viable scientific explanation for the overall pattern of biological similarity that we observe when comparing genomes:
A very popular argument is that similarity does not necessarily indicate common ancestry but could also imply common design … While this is true, the mere fact of similarity is only a small part of the evolutionary argument. Far more important than the mere occurrence of similarity is the kind of similarity observed. Similarity is not random. Rather, it forms a detectable pattern with some groups of species more similar than others. As an example consider a 200,000 nucleotide region from human chromosome 1. When compared to the chimpanzee, the two species differ by as little as 1-2%, but when compared to the mouse, the differences are much greater. Comparison to chicken reveals even greater differences. This is exactly the expected pattern of similarity that would result if humans and chimpanzees shared a recent common ancestor and mice and chickens were more distantly related. The question is not how similarity arose but why this particular pattern of similarity arose. To say that God could have created the pattern is merely ad hoc.
In this paper Todd sorts through several other Young Earth Creationist models, but ultimately finds them wanting as well. Further, his views have not changed in the last few years. However, in a recent blog where Todd reviewed one of my papers, he remains hopeful that a satisfactory Young Earth Creationism explanation will eventually be found:
Since that paper, my assessment of the issue has not changed, and despite my explanation that common design is (to borrow a phrase from Venema's paper) "enormously strained and severely ad hoc," creationists continue to pretend that common design explains homology. Nevertheless, I remain confident that a satisfactory creationist explanation will be found. Naive? Maybe.
And so Todd remains one of the more interesting individuals in the evangelical Christian discourse on whether God uses evolutionary means in His creation. One thing I have come to appreciate about Todd (aside from his intellectual honesty) is that he is an excellent person to compare notes with. While I am personally convinced that evolution is one of the means God employs as a creative mechanism, I find it helpful to get Todd’s take on new developments in our field. I can be sure that Todd won’t be blinded by some sort of “evolutionary bias” and give shoddy science a free pass (not that I would knowingly do so either, but we all have our blind spots). As I once commented after a lecture to a student who held to a Young Earth view, I had only discussed science that a highly-qualified Young Earth scientist (Todd) accepted.
Given Todd’s expertise in these areas, I have also come to appreciate his views on various creationist positions (Young Earth, Old Earth, or Evolutionary). In a future post, I’ll examine how Todd has interacted with an Old Earth Creationism organization I have recently critiqued myself: Reasons to Believe.
Dennis Venema is Fellow of Biology for The BioLogos Foundation and associate professor of biology at Trinity Western University in Langley, British Columbia. His research is focused on the genetics of pattern formation and signalling.