A Tale of Three Creationists, Part 1

Bookmark and Share

January 7, 2011 Tags: Lives of Faith

Today's entry was written by Dennis Venema. You can read more about what we believe here.

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 professor of biology at Trinity Western University in Langley, British Columbia. He holds a B.Sc. (with Honors) from the University of British Columbia (1996), and received his Ph.D. from the University of British Columbia in 2003. His research is focused on the genetics of pattern formation and signaling using the common fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster as a model organism. Dennis is 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 family enjoy numerous outdoor activities that the Canadian Pacific coast region has to offer. Dennis writes regularly for the BioLogos Forum about the biological evidence for evolution.

Next post in series >


View the archived discussion of this post

This article is now closed for new comments. The archived comments are shown below.

Loading...
Page 4 of 6   « 1 2 3 4 5 6 »
Paul D. - #46559

January 9th 2011

@ Bernie Dehler #46539

You’re correct that most Evangelicals think we have spirits that somehow have back-up copies of our personalities, thoughts, and memories and goes to heaven for some kind of disembodied afterlife. However, after reading NT Wright and others, I am convinced that this is not Biblical, not what the early church believed, and simply not true period. The case is even stronger if one considers books like Psalms and Ecclesiastes, which flat-out state that death is the end of one’s existence.

Anyway, in my opinion, you’re doing Christianity a favour by arguing against the soul as an immortal, supernatural thing.


nedbrek - #46567

January 9th 2011

Bernie (46539)

Nedbrek said:
“We must receive truth from an external source..”

What truth was ever received by an external source? I’m sure maybe the Catholic Pope and Mormon head ‘prophet’ might agree with you… but then again, they would be claiming to receive different messages.

Because people disagree, therefore they are all wrong?  I don’t think you would apply that rule to science.

You evaluate each system for internal consistency.  Any system which is internally inconsistent must be wrong.


gingoro - #46580

January 9th 2011

Bernie
D M MacKay in “The Clockwork Image” and others have suggested that the soul or spirit refers to the ability of God to re-instantiate an individual’s mental processes and personality at some point after death.  MacKay’s suggestion was that such re-instantiation required a material substrate like a brain in which to function.  One might think of such a process as being like the state data kept by an operating system when it hibernates and then re starts. 

If in fact this suggestion is correct then it would go a long way to explaining some of the difficulty in understanding exactly what the Bible is saying about the soul or spirit.  Consider explaining the hibernation-restart process to preliterate folks in the ANE. 
Dave W


John - #46600

January 9th 2011

Rich wrote:
“...design thinkers such as Michael Behe, Richard Sternberg, and Michael Denton…”

Bernie’s point about Denton is a good one, but a bigger question is, why aren’t there any design doers?

After all, they are claiming a far more direct role for God in design, and it would seem that if they truly believed that to be the case, they’d be far more interested in studying design for themselves instead of writing apologetics.

Can someone explain to me why opining that God did the hands-on designing is nearly 100% correlated with a total lack of interest in hands-on (empirical) research? Todd Wood is the only exception with whom I am familiar.


Bernie Dehler - #46603

January 9th 2011

Paul D. said:
“However, after reading NT Wright and others, I am convinced that this is not Biblical, not what the early church believed, and simply not true period. “

In the following passage it sounds to me like the Apoastle Paul is saying you are either here in the body or there with the Lord (in spirit form) until the resurrection when the body is re-created.

2 Corinthians 5:8-10
8 We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. 9 So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it. 10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.

Gingoro said:
“D M MacKay in “The Clockwork Image” and others have suggested that the soul or spirit refers to the ability of God to re-instantiate an individual’s mental processes and personality at some point after death.”

For an old man that died at age 90 and was senile, what mind would be re-instantiated?  People change as they grow.  I started life as a Roman Catholic, then a born-again evangelical, and now an atheist.  Which is the real me?  And I’m only middle-aged.


Bernie Dehler - #46607

January 9th 2011

John said:
“Can someone explain to me why opining that God did the hands-on designing is nearly 100% correlated with a total lack of interest in hands-on (empirical) research? “

It sounds like you are asking why scientists who believe in miracles aren’t researching that for validation… as if science could confirm a miracle.  But how could science ever explain a miracle? That’s why miracle thinking is a science-stopper.

However, a group does come to mind… Reasons to Believe (RTB).  They reject human evolution from animal, yet see the importance of having a ‘creation model’ and claim to have a creation model.  (Their model seems too fuzzy to me, to be a real model, but I’m not an expert on it.) 

But, for example, if you’re implying ‘irreducible complexity’ as a scientific fact, and asking why that isn’t being scientifically investigated by its supporters, I’m not sure what they could do (other than what they do, in appealing to ignorance… “we have no way of knowing how it could have happened therefore evolution didn’t happen”). 

Fazale Rana (RTB) has also been writing about DNA reflecting God’s design (highly technical)... something someone like Dr. Venema can technically respond to.


John - #46625

January 9th 2011

Bernie wrote:
“It sounds like you are asking why scientists who believe in miracles aren’t researching that for validation… as if science could confirm a miracle.”

No, not at all. What made you think that?

“However, a group does come to mind… Reasons to Believe (RTB).  They reject human evolution from animal, yet see the importance of having a ‘creation model’ and claim to have a creation model.  (Their model seems too fuzzy to me, to be a real model, but I’m not an expert on it.)”

No, that doesn’t fit the bill at all. RTB doesn’t empirically test their model. They are a perfect example of the absence of any interest in hands-on, empirical research.

“But, for example, if you’re implying ‘irreducible complexity’ as a scientific fact,…”

No, my point is much more general than that. Besides, you’re confusing a simple definition, IC, with the untested hypothesis that anything that fits the definition can’t evolve. That’s exactly how Behe’s sleight-of-hand was meant to work.


John - #46627

January 9th 2011

Bernie:
“Fazale Rana (RTB) has also been writing about DNA reflecting God’s design (highly technical)... something someone like Dr. Venema can technically respond to.”

You’re missing my point. I’m asking why they stop doing in favor of writing apologetics about the science that real scientists do. If they believed in ID, shouldn’t they be more interested in hands-on research?

BTW, there’s nothing “highly technical” about Fazale Rana’s writing. So my question is, why doesn’t he DO any research of his own? Where’s the faith? Where’s the interest in examining God’s handiwork for himself, instead of by hearsay?


Bernie Dehler - #46672

January 10th 2011

John said:
“BTW, there’s nothing “highly technical” about Fazale Rana’s writing. “

I was referring to this book, which is highly technical in DNA and microbiology:
“The Cell’s Design: How Chemistry Reveals the Creator’s Artistry”
http://tinyurl.com/2eobe6o


Bernie Dehler - #46675

January 10th 2011

John said, re: Fazale Rana at RTB:
” So my question is, why doesn’t he DO any research of his own? Where’s the faith? Where’s the interest in examining God’s handiwork for himself, instead of by hearsay?.”

A lot of creationists say the argument isn’t over the data itself, but the INTERPRETATION of the data.  They think a preconception of creationism or evolutionism will interpret the data in different ways.  So research is important, but not the only thing that’s important; in fact, interpretation is even MORE important.  So Fazale thinks he’s interpreting modern scientific discoveries more correctly than evolutionists.

Were I’d say they (young and old earthers) are wrong is that the facts do transcend preconceptions, IF and only if people are honestly and truthfully seeking the truth.  I accepted evolution because of the facts… and I was once partial to young earth creationism.  Since I’ve studied it, I’ve rejected YEC, OEC, & ID.  Having a naturalistic worldview makes the most sense of the world; at the cost of rejecting superstition and false hope of not dying (dying spiritually, since they know we die physcially).


John - #46688

January 10th 2011

Bernie:
“I was referring to this book…”

I was too. Please explain to me how “Much to the surprise of scientists, junk DNA has function” is highly technical. To me it looks like a banal deception.

“A lot of creationists say the argument isn’t over the data itself, but the INTERPRETATION of the data.”

Yes, they SAY that, but the ones who say that routinely misrepresent the data. Besides, how one interprets the extant data dictates which data are acquired next, no?

“They think a preconception of creationism or evolutionism will interpret the data in different ways.”

You mean like pretending that showing function for 0.001% of junk DNA means that all junk DNA is functional? If the scientists are so surprised, why weren’t the creationist scientists studying junk DNA? It just makes no sense.

“So research is important, but not the only thing that’s important; in fact, interpretation is even MORE important.  So Fazale thinks he’s interpreting modern scientific discoveries more correctly than evolutionists.”

In reality, he’s just misrepresenting them. But if his interpretation is correct, making modern scientific discoveries will come far more easily to him than it will to me, correct?


Rich - #46717

January 10th 2011

Bernie (46543):

Why rely on second-hand information when you can get the facts from the horse’s mouth?  Denton explains the trajectory of his thought in “An Anti-Darwinian Intellectual Journey: Biological Order as an Inherent Property of Matter,” in *Uncommon Dissent*, ed. Dembski (ISI, 2004).  It’s an essay that anyone seriously interested in evolutionary theory should read, though of course it will not yield its full benefit unless one has read his two books.  But both his books are well worth reading.  His third book is supposedly imminent, and its tentative title is apparently *The Tree of Life*.


Saskia - #46745

January 10th 2011

Hello,
I don’t know much about evolution and so I would like to ask a question that keeps bugging me.
Why is the genomic similarity between like species a reason not to believe in intelligent design?
I’ve always thought of DNA as being the language of God so to speak…
So similar DNA is just what I would expect if God created all creatures with “instructions” according to this language.
I’m obviously missing something though, or people would be saying this. Can someone please explain.
Thanks
Saskia


Jon Garvey - #46760

January 10th 2011

@Saskia - #46745

Hi Saskia

There are high-powered geneticists on here who would probably answer this better, but…

Assuming you take “intelligent design” to mean “beyond natural processes” (rather than behind…”)

One illustration for looking at DNA is not as a printed book, but as a hand copy. If you found two photocopied manuscripts for, say, boatbuilding manuals, about similar boats, and they used many of the same chapters and phrases, you might assume the same author was simply economising on literary effort for two designs. “Intelligent design.”

But if you found in both copies the same paragraphs crossed out, the same chunks circled with arrows to the next page, the same random spelling mistakes etc, you would probably conclude that your copies were different stages of the same manuscript for one developing boat design. “Evolution.”

There are chunks of DNA that do nothing, or that look like they’ve been altered without damaging what they do, or whose function changes (or is lost through genetic errors) in different species. These errors and changes, many of which appear quite random and useless, follow the evolutionary pathways the theory expects. Intelligent designers don’t repeat errors!


nedbrek - #46774

January 10th 2011

Bernie (46675): “Having a naturalistic worldview makes the most sense of the world; at the cost of rejecting superstition and false hope of not dying”

Do you see that “makes the most sense” is a presupposition that you can know truth (or at least, recognize it) - that you are the judge of what is true?


John - #46806

January 10th 2011

Saskia:
“Why is the genomic similarity between like species a reason not to believe in intelligent design?
I’ve always thought of DNA as being the language of God so to speak…
So similar DNA is just what I would expect if God created all creatures with “instructions” according to this language. “

Saskia, anyone describing the data as nothing more than “similarity” is either uninformed, misinformed, or trying to misinform you.

The key here is that the DIFFERENCES between sequences fit the mathematical definition of a nested hierarchy, which is a prediction of common descent. While you can place designed objects in a nested hierarchy, you can do so in many, equally valid ways. This is not the case for sequences. Everything relentlessly converges on a single nested hierarchy (tree or bush).

Just as importantly, the mathematical analyses of families of related proteins form nested hierarchies that show us the relationships between phyla (i.e., between you and baker’s yeast). The hierarchy representing organisms is repeatedly superimposable upon the hierarchy of a protein family.


John - #46809

January 10th 2011

To Saskia cont’d:

These trees are constructed using DIFFERENCES between sequences. The differences are proportional to the lengths of the various branches. Thus, a good marker for knowing if someone is being straight with you is whether s/he even mentions differences or nested hierarchies, because they can’t be explained by creationism or its cousin, intelligent design.

Why is this important? The amount of sequence data we have is massive and freely available. This evidence dwarfs the fossil evidence, which is why those who wish to deceive themselves and.or you concentrate on fossils and ignore nested hierarchies.


John - #46814

January 10th 2011

Rich wrote:
“Why rely on second-hand information when you can get the facts from the horse’s mouth?”

Indeed! If you believe that God designed life directly, why place your emphasis on what people write about it, unless you have no faith in your position?

“Denton explains the trajectory of his thought ...”

Denton isn’t God.

“It’s an essay that anyone seriously interested in evolutionary theory should read,…”

But we shouldn’t read what you claim that God himself wrote. Odd…

“... though of course it will not yield its full benefit unless one has read his two books.  But both his books are well worth reading.”

Not at all. His first book was primarily based on a sophomoric assumption in sequence analysis—a ladder instead of a tree—which he later recanted. But you can’t see that. You want people to look at anything but the data, which are closer to God no matter what your theological bent.

My hypothesis is that Rich has such an aversion to the actual data because he has no faith that he will find what he claims is there. This hypothesis predicts that he’ll continue to make utterly false claims about the data while arrogantly pretending to be familiar with them.


Bernie Dehler - #46849

January 10th 2011

Nedbreck said:
“Do you see that “makes the most sense” is a presupposition that you can know truth (or at least, recognize it) - that you are the judge of what is true?”

I think we both know that people are to investigate and determine the truth for themselves.  Don’t you want people to think about the gospel and accept the truth for themselves? Don’t you think people are, individually, accountable to God for what they choose to believe?  Aren’t you supposed to use your brain to determine these things?  If God gave you a brain, don’t you think he’d be the more proud of you the more you use it?  Please don’t take a stand for ignorance or suggest people shouldn’t think or shouldn’t use the fullest capability of their brain that is possible.  The only people who don’t want you to think are some religious leaders who want to tell you what to think… like some Catholics who don’t think and just ask the Pope (or their local Priest) what the answers are.  The best religious teachers try to tell you to read for yourself and come to your own conclusions/convictions.  That is a sign of respect, and acknoweding you as a peer and as a human with the capability to think for yourself.


nedbrek - #46876

January 10th 2011

Berne, I certainly am a fan of intellect and reasoning.  However, the Bible makes it clear that our opposition to God is centered in our intellect (trusting in ourselves).  We must come to God broken and needy (blessed are the poor in spirit).  Not haughty and self-assured.


Page 4 of 6   « 1 2 3 4 5 6 »