A Tale of Three Creationists, Part 1

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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.

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Saskia - #46908

January 11th 2011

Thank you john and jon, both you responses were illuminating.
I shall look into nested hierarchies.
God bless
Saskia


Taylor - #46942

January 11th 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). “

In other words: “Use your intellect to rationalize everything around you, but when it comes to the things of God, you’re not permitted to do so, because that is unreliable.” Please correct me if I’ve incorrectly understood your words, I’m honestly interested in the point you’re making.

If we trust our intellect to kill cancer, to send humans to the moon, to manipulate individual electrons, to design automobiles, to create devices that interact with satellites, etc., then how can you say a few statements up that “our minds are flawed, and lie to us”? If they can be ‘right’ in all of mankind’s greatest endeavors, how can they be ‘wrong’ when we approach the issue of God? Have we just gotten lucky every time we’ve trusted our minds in the past? Or are you looking for a case of special pleading:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Special_pleading

More than that, you’re making the claim that God *created us with fallible minds*, that in the perfection of creation, our design is flawed. Sin cannot account for human physiology.


nedbrek - #46984

January 11th 2011

Taylor, sorry I wasn’t clear enough.  I am referring to 1 Corinthians 2:14 “But the natural man receives not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.”

“More than that, you’re making the claim that God *created us with fallible minds*”

I believe that creation has undergone significant changes due to sin (the original design was “good”, probably not “perfect”).  I am, of course, in the minority here…


SigmaX - #46987

January 11th 2011

Taylor:  If we trust our intellect to kill cancer, to send humans to the moon, to manipulate individual electrons, to design automobiles, to create devices that interact with satellites, etc., then how can you say a few statements up that “our minds are flawed, and lie to us”?

I would paint things a bit different.  Science is the discipline that takes the awareness of human fallibility the *most* seriously.  The sorts of errors that pour out of political and religious pulpits are simply not tolerated in science.  That’s the point of peer review.

nedbrek:

Your postmodernism disturbs me.  It is also not to your advantage.  I should tell you that belief first and foremost in the fallbility of human reason is the #1 reason I, personally, do NOT believe in God.  It is my humility that made me an atheist, not my huaghtiness.

Science is not perfect, but it takes the awareness of the error in human reasoning more seriously than the religion that claims to have it all together.  That’s why it’s so powerful.  Most religion spends its time trying to avoid peer review, to avoid having its mistakes caught. 

Why trust your particular God to be the “judge”?  That question requires “reason” to answer.


Jeff Greenberg - #46990

January 12th 2011

Interesting thread. I know Kurt Wise rather well and it seems that he and Todd take similar positions on Origins. Two aspects of the previous posts seem to be sorely lacking in this discussion: Geology and the Philosophy of Science/Philosophy of Hermeneutics. Everyone is discussing YEC and OEC, etc. without regard for the much less controversial nature of geologic time. I haven’t read Todd’s publications but I would guess that he also respects the overwhelmingly good evidence for an ancient Earth (in addition to Solar System and Universe). Wise realizes the weight of the evidence, but like Wood falls back on an interpretation of scripture to undo all of it. Note that I said AN interpretation. Serious biblical scholarship must respect linguistics and culture, realizing the limits of an ancient (up to 4000 year-old derivations) text from an ancient near-eastern culture with a very different way of transmitting truths. YEC interpretations are not only deficient in geological contexts but in appreciating the interpretive issues that make translation into modern 21st Century scientific concepts futile.


Bernie Dehler - #46996

January 12th 2011

1 Cor. 2:14 “But the natural man receives not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.

Nedbrek- why does the Pope and Mormon prophet agree with you about this verse, yet you all receive different messages from God… even on such as an important question of which church is the truest (Roman Catholic, Mormon, or your preferred sect of Protestantism).

The evidence shows that if there’s a God, he doesn’t even divulge, clearly, even the most trivial of spiritual truths.  Christianity says you are doomed without the gospel, yet billions perish (in India, China, etc.) without even a hint of this revelation from God.  Are you just lucky to have been born in the USA!?

And just think the odds of being conceived.  If it was a different sperm, since each one is unique, you wouldn’t exist if a different sperm would have reached the egg on the day of conception.  You, as sperm, was one of 280 million other sperm competing. 

You see when you look at the big picture, religion looks more and more like ignorant superstition.  It was fine for the ancient bible writers who knew none of this; but in our day we should know enough to know better.


nedbrek - #47022

January 12th 2011

Bernie, it seems like you are dodging the issue.  Before you worry about unsaved Mormons, Catholics, Indians, etc. - what about you?  Do you want to know the truth, or are you going to continue justify belief in yourself/your way/your understanding - which we know cannot be certain?


Fredrick - #47026

January 12th 2011

Good article Dennis!
Your quotes by Todd Wood displays that he is an anomaly; he accepts his young earth position by faith in spite of the scientific evidences. A most refreshing position! Most young earth creationists feel the need to have scientific support for their position ( e.g. Creation Science). Creationists invest a great deal of energy into convincing each other that there is valid science to support their Biblical understanding . At a minimum they feel the need to tear down mainstream science, as Al Mohler does with his continuing accusation of “uniformitarianism”. The question is; if faith is enough, why all the need to debate science?


Bernie Dehler - #47035

January 12th 2011

Nedbrek said:
“A God who is not the author of sin and evil - where man is morally responsible. “

I thought God supposedly created (the author) of everything.  Is it just everything good that he’s responsible for, only? He invented math, physics, and morals; but not sin and death ???


nedbrek - #47040

January 12th 2011

Bernie, thank you for sticking with me!

The traditional Christian view is that death is the result of a human moral choice (the choice to disobey God).

Now, God is in control, and the power behind, death.  One might say God is the “editor”, while man is the “author”


John - #47061

January 12th 2011

Fredrick:
“The question is; if faith is enough, why all the need to debate science?”

Excellent question. The hypothesis that predicts all of their behaviors is that they don’t have faith.


Deb in B.C. - #47123

January 13th 2011

Bernie - it sounds like you are rejecting not only a branch of Protestantism, i.e. fundamentalism, but are also throwing the baby out with the bathwater. All of your objections can be countered; none are of substance such that they indicate there absolutely is no God. I agree that the fundamentalism you equate with Christianity is flawed and needs to go, but you seem to be conflating fundamentalism with Christianity. I encourage you to disengage the two, and examine each issue on it’s own.


David von Rudisill - #47681

January 17th 2011

Bernie,

I agree. Better the hard truth than comforting illusion.

One of the reasons why evolution is so strongly opposed is because it implies there is no such thing as a soul. When and where did humans or the ancestors to humans aquire a soul in the history of life? Many theistic evolutionists claim that God gave humans a soul at some time in the past, but where is the evidence for this, and why is naturalism unable to explain the human mind?

The notion of God giving us a soul, is to me, wishful thinking.


Bryan - #48107

January 18th 2011

Another springboard for the discussion of the soul may be the phenomenon of Near Death Experiences (NDE’s) which I’m sure many people are somewhat familiar with. Attempts have been made to correlate NDE’s to physical circumstances (such as the build-up of CO2 in heart attack patients), but they lack physical explanations for patients who were “clinically dead” and provide elaborate out-of-body narratives and even, on occasion, descriptions of physical places and events they should’ve had no knowledge of. Among the many scholars putting forward work in this area are Gary Habermas and Dinesh D’Souza (Life After Death: The Evidence). Granted, these men are not specialists in this field, but they also do not claim to be and present reasonable cases for the phenomenon.


Bryan - #48109

January 18th 2011

By saying “...they don’t claim to be” I was asserting that they provide references in their work to specific cases as opposed to merely basing the majority of their arguments on their opinions


Miikka Leskinen - #48418

January 20th 2011

Following the discussion in these comments… I just don’t get it why people would leave the faith for reasons such as evolution or the existence of soul. That cannot be the whole story. It’s just mindblowing why such open questions would be that devastating.

I’ve gone through many struggles in my own life. Some of them have been spiritual doubts, some major disappointments, some open painful questions. I’ve had problems in relationship to other people. I’ve been unemployed or felt my life is no good. None of these struggles have caused me to abandon any of my life’s most important foundations.

The existence of soul is really a trivial question. We Christians believe in a resurrection of the body, so it’s really up to the Creator whether we have a separate, eternal soul that can wander around in some spiritual dimension. The Bible doesn’t teach that specifically. Even the word soul, nephesh, in Genesis means a living body, not immaterial spirit.

I know many Christians who don’t believe in the soul. George Coyne for instance. I’m not myself sure, because I take my theology from the Bible, not from tradition. If the Bible doesn’t dictate it, it’s an open question for me.


David Kontur - #48430

January 21st 2011

Good article.  It is very interesting as I read the comments here.  I think where people often get stuck is in a literal reading of the scriptures.  There are actually 2 separate creation stories in Genesis - one from the Yahwistic tradition and one from the Elohistic tradition.  Neither of these stories are concerned with presenting a scientific or blow by blow history of creation - which are questions addressing the “how” of creation.  Instead the biblical writers were primarily concerned with the question of “why” regarding creation: God created the universe, God’s creation is good, God has created humans in His image and likeness, humans rebel and try to re-create the universe and God in their own image and likeness (the fall into ego-centeredness pride, and arrogance), and yet God’s words to Adam (the word Adam in Hebrew is a generic word for man) continue to echo throughout human history - “Where are you?”  In the early blblical cosmology it was also believed that the sky was a big dome with water above it. 
God’s word has infinite depth and it would be a mistake to try to box this in by taking biblical narratives and forcing them into a literal reading.  This creates a false dichotomy between science and religion.


Jean K Lightner - #49088

January 25th 2011

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?

Because evolution has many definitions from “change in the allele frequency in a population over time”  to “common ancestry of life on earth.”  Evolutionists have defined evolution so as to include a considerable amount of material well accepted by young earth creationists and any other thinking person. 

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?

I can speak for me, not Todd.  This is the logic by which I was taught evolution in high school and college:
1) Evolution is a change in allele frequency over time.
2) Allele frequencies have been observed to change over time
3) Therefore, all life descended from a single common ancestor.

This is clearly a logical fallacy.  Evidence may certainly be interpreted in the framework of Evolution (#3 above), but that does not make it the most plausible alternative.  History is history, and science is very limited in what it can tell us about history.  Models are helpful, but one must be cautious about the faith one places in them.


Kevin - #49316

January 27th 2011

Bernie,
you haven’t “left the faith;” you merely changed the object of your faith.


Tim Constable - #49368

January 27th 2011

Having only just come across this page, I haven’t had time to read the various articles and links - which I will do in time -  but it seems simple to me…

Data doesn’t uphold or prove one theory or another; theories are interpretations of data.

Beyond verifiably datable recorded evidence (i.e. written records place-able on a calendar),  any statement about the past is founded on at least one un-verifiable assumption, and is therefore speculation.

To state that a speculation is fact, is to lie.

To teach a lie as truth is propaganda.

Both YAC and neo-Darwinian evolution are adhered to by faith of one sort or another.

I recommend “Who Made God?” by Edgar Andrews Bsc. PhD. FInstP. FIMMM. CEng. CPhys.


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