Evolving Beyond Apologetics: A Review of Rachel Held Evans’ “Evolving in Monkey Town”

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June 25, 2010 Tags: Lives of Faith

Today's entry was written by Dennis Venema. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what we believe here.

Evolving Beyond Apologetics: A Review of Rachel Held Evans’ “Evolving in Monkey Town”

Lately I’ve been musing on the hypothesis that one significant difference between the Intelligent Design (ID) approach and an evolutionary creationist / BioLogos approach is how the two viewpoints employ apologetics: arguments for the existence of God (or a “Designer”); the efficacy of “natural” mechanisms, and so on. It seems to me that a large portion of the railing against “naturalism” on the part of several ID figures is motivated by the desire for a convincing Christian apologetic. Stephen Meyer, for example, puts is this way in his recent book Signature in the Cell:

“According to scientific materialism, reality is ultimately impersonal… though this view of existence proved initially liberating in that it released humans from any sense of obligation to an externally imposed system of morality, it has also proved profoundly and literally dispiriting. If the conscious realities that comprise our personhood have no lasting existence, if life and mind are nothing more than unintended ephemera of the material cosmos, then, as the existential philosophers have recognized, our lives can have no lasting meaning or ultimate purpose. Without a purpose driven universe, there can be no ‘purpose-driven life.’”1

Meyer, then, seems to be highly motivated to articulate an apologetic to counter the purposeless he sees in “materialistic” explanations.

In contrast, adopting an EC/BioLogos – type approach means being willing to give up an anti-evolutionary apologetic. Accepting that God created through what we observe as a natural process deflates any attempt to argue for His existence based on natural phenomena that science has yet to explain. For a dyed-in-the-wool presuppositional apologist, this is madness. Still, we’ve been here before. Preaching a “crucified Messiah” had what can only be described as negative apologetics value for Paul: it was foolishness for Gentiles and a serious stumbling block for Jews.

With these thoughts in mind, I was pleased to meet author Rachel Held Evans2 at the BioLogos conference earlier this month. (You can see her thoughts on the meeting here). Rachel grew up in Dayton Tennessee, home of the infamous Scopes Monkey trial of 1925. Rachel attended Bryan College (named in honor of William Jennings Bryan, the prosecutor that convicted schoolteacher John Scopes of teaching evolution); she is the daughter of a Bryan professor; Kurt Wise was one of her instructors. In short, she grew up in a world firmly devoted to anti-evolutionary Christian apologetics.

Evolving in Monkey Town is the story of how cracks begin to appear in the façade of Rachel’s comfortable world, with its ready answers for difficult questions. Eventually, most of what she has known comes crashing down around her, leaving her to sort through the pieces and reevaluate what being a Jesus-follower is all about.

Her descent into doubt is a poignant section of the book:

“On the outside, I embodied all the expectations I had for myself going into college. I was confident, articulate, ready to change the world. But on the inside, something different was happening. I started to have doubts.

You might say that the apologetics movement had created a monster. I’d gotten so good at critiquing all the fallacies of opposing worldviews, at searching for truth through objective analysis, that it was only a matter of time before I turned the same skeptical eye upon my own faith.”

As her story unfolds, we journey with her as she asks the hard questions: what exactly is orthodox Christianity, and what are merely “false fundamentals”? Does the faith stand or fall with a literal interpretation of Genesis? How can a loving God be reconciled with the genocides He commands in the Old Testament? Is there a place for mystery, paradox and tension when you’ve been raised on a worldview claiming certainty? And after the dust settles, what about this Jesus character, anyway?

What sets Evolving in Monkey Town apart is that it takes the abstract ideas discussed in more scholarly works and incarnates them in a person. Where other books strive to reach an answer, we join with Rachel as she struggles to find a way to live in the questions. This work is significant not because it advances scholarly dialogue on the topics it covers (though strangely, it does that too) but because Rachel is a representative voice that an apologetics-infatuated church desperately needs to hear. How does faith survive when what one took for granted as part-and-parcel of the faith evaporates? Is there a place where those “Already Gone” can come back to Jesus?

What really made this book stand out for me was the refreshing honesty and depth of the story. It drew me in, hooked me early, and it didn’t let go. Most science/faith/worldview/Biblical interpretation books aren’t exactly page-turners (sorry Pete). This one is: I read it straight through in one sitting (it’s over 200 pages) and felt it ended far too quickly. It’s deep enough for the scholar’s shelf and easily engaging enough for the beach. I didn’t think I’d ever put a book in that category. It’s delightfully well-written, funny, and keenly insightful. I laughed, I cried, I bought the T-shirt. If you read one book on the science/faith continuum this summer, this is the one you should read. Y’all get yourselves over to Rachel’s blog and order one.

To read more about Rachel's faith journey, see her recent blog.

Notes

1. Signature in the Cell p. 449.

2. I’ve always enjoyed noting folks who have proper sentences for names. In her case, that’s the best reason I’ve seen for keeping a maiden name as part of a married name!


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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Rich - #19282

June 28th 2010

gingoro:

I agree with your points in 19262.

I thought George Murphy was a very learned fellow, but I too got the impression that he was employing a particular Christian theology to, as it were, tell God what he must have done.

As for Mike Gene, I’ve asked him before why he needs to postulate “control mechanisms” for evolution, given that his theological understanding of creation allows God to create exactly *this* universe and exactly *us* without the need of any such control mechanisms.  On Mike’s account, God could have generated a universe that could have produced us by pure neo-Darwinian means, without any control functions whatsoever.  God could have chosen to bring us to be out of Dawkins’s universe.  So why fudge on the neo-Darwinism, and irritate all the TEs here?  Why not just acquiesce in it, and say, like other TEs, that God was somehow, vaguely, behind this wholly random process, and be done with it? 

If the answer is that Mike thinks that there are *scientific* reasons for postulating a control mechanism, then he’s suggesting that science points to design.  Amen to that!  But it won’t win him any friends here.  Like Francis Beckwith, Mike’s really bad at identifying natural allies.


Mike Gene - #19291

June 28th 2010

Hi Rich,

Can you point us to something that you’ve written, or that others have written, that explains, with detailed mutational pathways, with appropriate correlations with morphology and selection criteria, how any major organ or body plan might have come about?

No.  Yet there is no reason to think that the ability to provide such a detailed explanation is entailed in the truth of neo-Darwinian evolution.  Just as there is no reason to think that the ability to provide a detailed design explanation (who is the designer, what were the designers methods and material, where is the blueprint, etc.) is entailed in the truth of design. I simply take the evidence in hand and tentatively proceed from there.  As I see it, there is plenty of evidence that supports neo-Darwinian evolution, but also sufficient evidence to suggest another dimension is in play.  I tend to gravitate toward big picture explanations and not hyper-focused, meticulous explanations.


Mike Gene - #19292

June 28th 2010

If you cannot do this, your belief strikes me as irrational, faith-based, so to speak.  Or else we understand “neo-Darwinian” quite differently.

But that would mean just about everything humans believe is irrational and faith-based, as very few beliefs (especially about the past) are proven with detailed explanations and facts. I’ve become very cynical about the power of human reason, but not that cynical. 

I’m certainly glad to do this.  But as you know, most TEs will reject any such approach as “non-scientific”.  They will say that you are trying to sneak “purpose” into science, by speaking of “control processes”.

Yeah, most TEs, like most people, seem to be obsessed with whether or not an explanation can be labeled “scientific.”  I find it to be an intellectually lazy way of passing judgment on a belief.  Since we have all been conditioned, er, I mean educated, in a culture shaped by scientism, that’s supposed to be an important distinction.


Mike Gene - #19293

June 28th 2010

but you seem to me to protest too much against the idea of ID.

LOL.  And according to others, I’m a stealth creationist out to destroy science and little children! 

What are “control processes” but another way of speaking about design?  Who or what put the “control processes” in place?  And are you saying that *science*, as such, can demonstrate the existence of these control processes?

Good questions.  But this blog, with all its restrictions, is not the best venue for such discussion.  I address such type of questions on my own blog.


Mike Gene - #19294

June 28th 2010

Are you willing to go up against Giberson, Falk, Venema and the other here and say that the inference of such control processes is “scientific” and not “metaphysical” or “religious”?

That’s a meta-debate that obscures the really interesting questions – is there evidence for such control processes in evolution?  We can detect control ranging from the lac operon to mitosis to bone remodeling.  But we can do this because of scale – we can manipulate these systems in the lab and observe the results.  With evolution, our power to experimentally manipulate is vastly limited, so we must rely more on indirect observations and circumstantial evidence. And that makes it much harder to detect control, especially when most are invested in the notion that evolution must be explained without design and a denial of this is labeled as culturally dangerous. 

But I’ll go up against anyone who insists that my views are insane nonsense.  Done that, been there, many times before. 

If you do so, you’ll find that your only allies are ID proponents.  So you’re in a paradoxical position.

Story of my life!


Rich - #19295

June 28th 2010

Mike Gene:

All fair answers, and I agree with much, but I’d plead one important distinction regarding ID.

My own version of ID (which is nominally shared by at least some ID proponents) is that ID is a theory of design detection, not a theory of origins.  Therefore, I don’t see why it needs to provide a historical account of how design became embodied in the universe, or in living systems.  Of course, to be a “scientific account of origins” it would need to do this, but as I say, I don’t think it’s an account of origins—temporal origins, anyway.  It’s more like an account of “cause” in the old Aristotelian sense. 

Neo-Darwinian theory, on the other hand, is avowedly an explanation of temporal origins.  It postulates certain past transformations.  It is therefore bound to show the “how” in a way that ID is not.  Experimental sciences like chemistry and physics don’t dodge the “how” questions, and I don’t see why neo-Darwinism should be allowed to, either.  I think its practitioners let themselves off far too easily.

I agree with you that there is more going on than ND mechanisms.  So do Behe and Sternberg.  But they weight the non-Darwinian component more than you do.


Mike Gene - #19298

June 28th 2010

Rich,

As for Mike Gene, I’ve asked him before why he needs to postulate “control mechanisms” for evolution, given that his theological understanding of creation allows God to create exactly *this* universe and exactly *us* without the need of any such control mechanisms.

I don’t feel any need to postulate control mechanisms for evolution.  The hypothesis is simply intriguing, off the beaten path, and supported by various clues. 

On Mike’s account, God could have generated a universe that could have produced us by pure neo-Darwinian means, without any control functions whatsoever.  God could have chosen to bring us to be out of Dawkins’s universe.  So why fudge on the neo-Darwinism, and irritate all the TEs here?

I’m not really trying to irritate people or refrain from irritating them. I really am trying to explore what happened to the best of my abilities.  And it should be clear I am not trying to force an explanation that fits a social or metaphysical objective.


Mike Gene - #19299

June 28th 2010

Why not just acquiesce in it, and say, like other TEs, that God was somehow, vaguely, behind this wholly random process, and be done with it?

Yes, that would be the best way to “belong” and to eliminate all the suspicions, gossip, and conspiracy theories about me.  It might even make me “respectable.”


Mike Gene - #19301

June 28th 2010

Rich:

My own version of ID (which is nominally shared by at least some ID proponents) is that ID is a theory of design detection, not a theory of origins.  Therefore, I don’t see why it needs to provide a historical account of how design became embodied in the universe, or in living systems.

Excellent (and fair) distinction.  But if one truly has a method to detect design, you would think it would be employed in a theory of origins.  Especially if this method of design detection is supposed to be science-in-action.  I think one of the main reasons scientists (TEs and atheists) are so hostile to ID is because the methods are not used to craft a theory of origins.  If you have a real tool, you build something with it.  Fairly or unfairly, lots of people do not perceive the design detection methods as tools to build a theory, but as weapons to attack another theory.  And that, by itself, leads to images of warfare.  And warfare means people must man up and choose sides.


Gregory - #19334

June 28th 2010

Thanks, Dave, for sharing your thoughts about not making much progress with me on ´evolution´ outside of natural-physical sciences with Rachel and BioLogos. This is quite a ´normal´ situation, in Kuhn´s view, that old grammar is difficult to discard and new grammar difficult to embrace. It is especially true outside of one´s field(s) of expertise when discernment is more challenging.

Words don´t have to be stuffy, Rachel, I agree. But they are best not frivolous or flimsy either.

“We’re intentionally playing with the words for the amusement and benefit of the reader.” - Rachel

On the one hand that´s fine, since you are aiming for a catchy title that will help sell your book. Otoh, it serves to muddy the communicative waters about evolution, as I wrote above. It is almost as if ´universal evolutionists´ can´t help but use the term ´evolve´ even when speaking of things that don´t evolve.

This is the challenge for you Rachel as a natural-physical scientist. I appreciate your story as a Christian coming to accept ´biological evolution.´ But if it were to be damaging to other fields re: evolutionism, would you be willing to change your grammar?

Thanks for acknowledging the point, gingoro!


Gregory - #19336

June 28th 2010

...and JKnott too!


Mike Gene - #19338

June 28th 2010

Gregory,

Here are ways to drive your point home:

“Take an umbrella with you, as the weather could evolve and begin to rain.”

“I have always been fascinated by fossil evolution.” 

“I used to like him, but something happened and he has evolved.”

“Hey Dr. Dino, I liked your posting.  But you may want to go back and evolve that first sentence, as it has a typo.”


Gregory - #19340

June 28th 2010

Sure, Mike glad to oblige (already written in 2005)...

List of 10: Unsatisfactory uses for evolutionary social philosophy/linguistics
1. The election evolved into a conclusive result (i.e. ballot by ballot);
2. The artist’s painting evolved into a masterpiece (i.e. brush stroke by stroke);
3. The athlete evolved into being injured (e.g. torn knee ligament);
4. The sports contest evolved (point by point) into a victory and a defeat;
5. The haircut evolved (snip by snip) into an aesthetic disaster;
6. The couple evolved (X by Y) into a family;
7. The student evolved (course by course) into a graduate;
8. The company evolved (transaction by transaction) into a profitable business;
9. The conflict evolved (shot by shot) into a war;
10. The architectural blueprint evolved (design by design) into a building.


Gregory - #19391

June 29th 2010

Or from a recent Gatorade commercial (during NBA 2010 Playoff’s, maybe still current…):

“If you wanna revolution, the only solution, evolve.”


Marshall - #19454

June 29th 2010

Hi Gregory,

I’ve read many of your comments and am still trying to understand your central complaint. Do you think there should be no popular uses of the word “evolve” that differ from the meaning in biology? If so, do you also object to the wide range of meaning “relativistic” has in popular usage that doesn’t coincide with its use in physics? What if some of the more popular uses predate the technical uses?


John VanZwieten - #19459

June 29th 2010

Marshall,

I think Gregory’s central complaint is that not only does the word “evolve” find it’s way into usage beyond biology, but it often then brings significant baggage along with it.  Some of that baggage merely leads to muddled thinking, but sometimes the baggage can have extreme real-life consequences as in the case of social-darwinism or “evolutionary economics.”

So when you say something “evolved” do you mean:

1. Came about by random mutation plus natural selection
2. Changed over generations gradually, such that one generation can communicate with the next, but individuals separated by many generations cannot communicate
3. Changed not as a result of mind or intention but rather by random, naturalistic means
4. Changed not merely in a cyclical fashion, but in a direction
5. Changed gradually
6. Changed

Then etymology of “evolve” suggests #4 as the root definition of the word, with the others adding or discarding “baggage.”

I think Gregory has a point, even if he overplays it sometimes


Marshall - #19468

June 29th 2010

Hi John,

Thanks for the background. I know people who equate the theory of relativity with post-modernism, which I think would be a similar mixing of categories or “muddled thinking”, yet I’m not quite at the point of discarding other uses of the word “relative” and its cognates as a result.

I think muddled thinking will be around regardless, and I don’t think we’re going to come up with a language where every word has only a single, precise definition (nor, that it would be desirable to do so). Perhaps a great deal of muddled thinking is due to expecting written language to result in math equations rather than literature.

Perhaps a better cure to this kind of confused thinking is pointing out the conflations that have occurred (where a word is used in one sense to make a point that only stands based on another sense), rather than promoting a more limited or rigid lexicon. The title of this blog post seems to be a quite appropriate use of definition 4 (perhaps the most basal), with a play-on-words thrown in. As a math equation it would be horrible, but as literature I think it’s clever.


John VanZwieten - #19475

June 29th 2010

Marshall,

Agreed

I think the title serves another purpose beyond cleverness.  “Evolve” is an evil word for many Christians, so hearing it used this way a) confronts a somewhat irrational prejudice and b) might help some become more comfortable with the term.


Gregory - #19482

June 29th 2010

Hi Marshall,

Good questions!

“Do you think there should be no popular uses of the word “evolve” that differ from the meaning in biology?”

My policy is: reject all uses of ´evolution´ wrt ´human-made things.´ The axiom I present, which I might have posted here is: “Nothing human-made ´evolves´ into being or having become.”[ /b] I´ve said this consistently for 6 or 7 years.

To questions 2&3 from #19454, I would say that ´relative´ has a more basic meaning, a more powerful meaning than ´evolution,´ & thus holds more uses. Your cousin is still your ´relative´ even if I reject some aspects of ´relativism´ as a late- or post-modern ideology. Relations(hips).

Popular uses ´pre-dating´ technical uses applies to ´evolution´ (philos, socio). The problem is when natural & social scientists share a ´universal evolutionism´ (e.g. socio-biol or universal relativism) in the face of alternative ways of speaking that identify proper ´limits´ for the nat-phys-scientific or general theory.

To call Dennis´ title ´clever´ or ´tricksy´ is easy. But *what* is it that actually *is* ´evolving´ in the title? Anything physical or not? Anything human-made or not?

When I ask eVo economists this, I get FUZZ.


Gregory - #19485

June 29th 2010

Hi John,

Thanks for your observations. Yes, I would agree that ´evolution´ outside of biology often brings baggage along with it. It is not only biological baggage, but also philosophical & even (a)theological baggage.

You´ve got me curious about what you think are some of the negative or ´extreme real-life consequences´ of ´evolutionary economics´.

You suggest #4 as the ´root definition´: “Changed not merely in a cyclical fashion, but in a direction”

One problem here is how ´direction´ relates to progress, advance, improvement and other teleological ideas. Biological evolution is said (by some) to be ateleological, without (higher) purpose.

Do Dennis and Rachel think they are demonstrating ´higher purpose´ in contesting that non-nat-phys things ´evolve´? Perhaps they do.

Marshall seems to think that Dennis and Rachel use ´evolving´ to imply a ´direction´. Maybe they´ll tell us which direction, purpose, pathway. Otherwise, bluff.

I agree with John´s point in #19475 about how pop evolutionism ´might help,´ yet I doubt John´s looked at the problem of ´universal evolutionism´ to the depth & width that I have.

Again, the question is: what are egs. of things that don´t evolve?


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