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From Intelligent Design to BioLogos, Part 1: Early years

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July 20, 2011 Tags: Design, Lives of Faith
From Intelligent Design to BioLogos, Part 1: Early years

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

For those familiar with my work here at BioLogos, it might come as a surprise to know that until relatively recently I was a supporter of the Intelligent Design Movement (IDM). In this series of posts, I tell the story of my transition to the view that God uses evolution as a creative mechanism.

Early years

I grew up in northern British Columbia, Canada, in a small town called Terrace, where I spent a lot of time in the woods with my father and brother hunting and fishing. Little did I know how spoiled we were –Terrace and its environs are a world-class destination for outdoor pursuits, especially fishing. As a hunter, my father was always interested in patterns in nature: what animals fed on, where they moved at certain times, and so on. Even as a child I can remember being similarly interested in how nature worked. Often, while dad fished, I was the one brandishing a net, bucket at the ready, to see what critters I could scoop up and examine. While my peers at school wanted to be astronauts and firemen, I dreamed of being a scientist some day.

My local church setting was pretty much a wash when it came to science. Science was not held up as a potential vocation, but neither was it denigrated as suspect. Creation science did not seem to be a priority, but rather global missions. As such, science–faith issues were seldom, if ever, discussed in the church I grew up in. I can vaguely recall one dust-up over eschatology, which was perhaps the first time I realized that not all Christians agree on everything when it comes to interpreting the Bible. I cannot, however, recall any similar discussion about the means by which God created.

High school

Despite evolution being almost a complete non-issue in my local church, I seemed to acquire a generic, evangelical, anti-evolutionary position by default. Certainly I knew of no Christians who accepted it, and I can still recall the feeling of dread I would get even at hearing the word evolution spoken aloud. That word, in my mind, was effectively synonymous with atheism. Fortunately, even in high school biology class evolution seemed to be a complete non-issue too, for as far as I can recall evolution was not a subject I was exposed to in high school. In fact, in high school I found biology to be intensely boring – it seemed to me to be mere regurgitation of information. Chemistry and physics seemed much more interesting, and I suspect now the reason for the appeal they held for me then was that they were taught from their underlying principles: atomic theory, Newtonian mechanics and Einstein’s theories of special and general relativity. What was missing was the theoretical underpinnings of biology: a way to organize the laundry list of information into a context. It would be a long time before I realized that evolution was the theoretical underpinning that was missing from my biology experience. Given my dread of the topic, had this been pressed on me in high school I may have never pursued a career in biology.

As a high school student I had left behind my childhood desire to be a scientist. After all, I knew no scientists, and had no notion of how one might become one. In my small-town, northern Canadian setting, a medical doctor was about as close as one came to a scientific career that I was aware of. Accordingly, I set my sights on medicine, and off I went to the University of British Columbia in the fall of 1992. Biology seemed a natural choice for an aspiring doctor, so that was what I chose.

One church incident that I do recall with great clarity happened just before I left for university. There were several recent grads in the congregation: some were headed to Bible College, and others, such as myself, were off to “secular” universities. Our congregation had a time of prayer for all of us, but the contrast was stark: prayers of thanksgiving and blessing for those bible-school bound, but for those of us heading into the lion’s den, prayers of supplication that we not lose our faith in the process. I can remember steeling myself for the upcoming battle, where professors tried to snare me with their atheistic teachings and peers likewise pressured me to give up my faith. One battle I knew was coming was the evolution one: certainly, as a biology student, this would be one of the challenges I would have to face.

University 101

To my delight, I found that university was not going to require me to hold my breath spiritually for four years. Soon I was involved with Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship and enjoying the friendship of many other Christian students. Biology, however, remained boring and laundry-list like. My grades in chemistry and physics were still higher than those within my declared major of biology. The one bright spot was that evolution barely seemed to rate a mention except in passing. Certainly no compelling evidence for evolution was ever mentioned – professors seemed too intent on teaching the details of their fields to provide a wider evolutionary context. Even the introductory survey courses seemed more intent on a mere description of biodiversity rather than any detailed understanding of how that diversity arose. I did note that there was a 400-level evolution course, but thankfully it was an optional elective. Avoiding the evolution issue was easier than I had thought: I simply skipped taking that elective.

At the start of my third year, with my grades still marginal for medical school, I somehow decided to upgrade into a biology “honors” student. This meant two things: working on an undergraduate research thesis with a faculty member, and attending an “honors seminar” class with other students in the same program.

Experiencing my first taste of research was electrifying: here at last was genuine science! Not long after, my upper-level classes seemed a lot more interesting and relevant, and also much easier. My grades improved dramatically, and medical school looked to be a live option once more – except for the fact that my childhood interest in science had blossomed again.

Standing against evolution

The undergraduate thesis seminar class included an assignment that required students to familiarize themselves with the research of one of the professors in the department. As the list of potential faculty and their research interests was read, one caught my attention: the work of Dolph Schluter on experimental evolution. I decided to take the opportunity to score a few hits on the so-called “theory” by signing up for this topic. What followed can only be described now as a painful memory: full of ignorance and confidence, I trotted out every long-refuted, anti-evolutionary argument in the book (in fact, if memory serves, my “research” was nothing beyond skimming one anti-evolutionary book for its arguments). I remember that the class was quite engaged by the presentation, and there was some vigorous back-and-forth with some of the students who knew the science better than I because of their research work. I can only imagine what the thesis class faculty supervisor was thinking at the time. The worst part was that Dolph himself arrived early for his own presentation to the class, which was to follow my own. As such, he was able to hear a good portion of my nonsense.

Fortunately for me, Dolph had no interest in what would have been a very easy dressing-down. Rather, he restrained himself to a few words to the rest of the class on their lack of knowledge. Personally, I thought I had scored a victory for the faith, against the evils of evolution.

In the next post in this series, I’ll describe my introduction to, and enthusiastic embrace of, the Intelligent Design Movement.

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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DSDan - #63444

July 20th 2011

What was missing was the theoretical underpinnings of biology: a way to organize the laundry list of information into a context.

I had the misfortune in high school to take biology without evolution and physics without calculus. We learned dry lists of biodiversity in biology class and dry lists of equations in physics class.
Then I arrived as a bright-eyed freshman in university and took physics with calculus. In the first few days, we looked at how position, velocity, and acceleration related using calculus, and my whole view of the subject changed. Everything just “clicked” and the equations came alive. I’m guessing that’s similar to how you felt when you experienced biology with evolution.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #63454

July 21st 2011

DSDan wrote:

I had the misfortune in high school to take biology without evolution and physics without calculus. We learned dry lists of biodiversity in biology class and dry lists of equations in physics class.

If evolution is the heart and soul of biology, and I am not questioning this fact, then it is important that we understand evolution correctly. 

Evolution has two crucial aspects, variation and natural selection.  Sadly neoDarwinism focuses almost entirely on variation by genetic mutation and fails to understand natural selection is by adaptation through symbiosis.  Until science understands evolution properly, we will have a serious disconnect between science, philosophy, and theology.     

Ashe - #63445

July 20th 2011

Thanks for sharing, looking forward to the rest of the series. 

beaglelady - #63447

July 20th 2011

Yes it was a big surprise learning that you were once part of the ID Movement.  I, too, am looking forward to the rest of this series.

Mazzeratti - #63453

July 21st 2011

Always love your BioLogos entries Dennis. Very much looking forward to this series!

Bilbo - #63458

July 21st 2011


Looking forward to the account of your fall from the truth.

Random Arrow - #63460

July 21st 2011

Dennis –

Awesome. Testimony. I wish we’d see more.

Dennis – “I seemed to acquire a generic, evangelical, anti-evolutionary position by default. Certainly I knew of no Christians who accepted it, and I can still recall the feeling of dread I would get even at hearing the word evolution spoken aloud. That word, in my mind, was effectively synonymous with atheism.”

Yeah. Exactly.

I grew up in a mostly-atheist family. Loved studying dust mote randomness as a child. Profoundly awesome. I heard a science technician from Southern California Gas give our 8th grade class a science lecture on triple-point physics. Liquefying and freezing gas. I thought dust mote randomness was cool. But under triple-point physics – there’s always a simultaneous – ordered, chaotic, and random edge. I was hooked. For life. A few years later, I had a profound conversion – a sea of love. I found an old dusty and neglected Bible. And read the Gospel of John. All alone. All alone in my room. No preacher. No church. A mere teenager. I read John all alone and started asking open questions (just open questions) in prayer – then open-prayer questions – about every other verse. Took me all afternoon. That Love has never left. Ever.

But – the randomness of the dust motes and the chaotic dynamics along the edges of triple-point order – was always then and remains today – a part of the baseline of my faith.

The only thing that almost ruined my faith – were pastors and preachers. Telling me that I couldn’t know Christ unless I learned it from them. In their churches. Took the cookies and grape juice the way they did. Dunked or sprinkled. I tried about a half-dozen churches in high school. Bunch of them – churches. Pastors. Almost all of them hateful toward Darwin. So ignorant as to be painful. Most of these pastors unable to give the single-sentence definition of evolution. No less give the single paragraph syllogism. And telling me – as a high school student – to forgo my college scholarship to University of California Berkeley. Because Jesus was coming! Pastor experts. The state of clergy ignorance – painful. Painful. And Darwin-hate – painful.

I sincerely feel that if the dust-mote randomness and triple-point chaos had not – already – been built into the baseline of my faith – I could have never understood the random and chaotic state-space of the churches I visited!

We – you and I – had different experiences. On the Way.

God bless your for risking. And for your testimony here.






Bilbo - #63471

July 22nd 2011

Powerful testimony, Jim.  Glad you found Jesus before you were churched, or perhaps you never would have.

Random Arrow - #63478

July 22nd 2011

Bilbo, thanks. I see your uncle has a new movie coming out! What’s your opinion in advance? – worth the tickets? “What’s in your pockets?” – got your tickets yet? I was too harsh in my article, above. I wanted to describe my adolescent feelings – the high school feelings – of frustration in contrast to Dennis’s. It backfired on me because I started re-experiencing them! But I felt Love reignite too. So it’s not all bad. Thanks for the comment keeping tethered more to grace! Cheers, ~ Jim

Random Arrow - #63481

July 22nd 2011

doh! Bilbo has the new movie! not Bilbo’s uncle ...

beaglelady - #63483

July 23rd 2011

“What’s in your pockets?”

I think you mean, “what has it got in its pocketses?”

Bilbo - #63485

July 23rd 2011

I didn’t know there was a “Bilbo” movie coming out.  I was disappointed in the “Lord of the Rings” movies.  They took a journey story and changed it into an action/adventure story.

beaglelady - #63486

July 23rd 2011

The film adaptation of The Hobbit will actually be 2 films, to be released in 2012 and 2013.  (Finally!)


defensedefumer - #63493

July 24th 2011

Well-written! I remembered when I was an anti-evolutionist too. I was lucky to have a patient professor who entertained my anti-evolution comments.

sfmatheson - #63498

July 25th 2011

The last two paragraphs…ouch. Looking forward to the rest of your story.

glsi - #63593

July 31st 2011

I’ve gone rather the other direction.  Having grown up a Christian and having been taught Darwinism in school, I never saw any conflict between the two.  I guess I was a theistic evolutionist all that time even if I didn’t know what that was.

Later in life I began to read powerful scientific challenges (they had nothing to do with my Christianity) to what I had grown up assuming was true.  For example I specifically recall being taught in junior high that life probably began on earth when some unnamed chemical compounds came in contact with hot rocks and somehow spawned life.  I believed that stuff.  It made simple and logical sense.  Little did I know my teachers and the biology textbook writers had no clue whatsoever how life began.  But they were nonetheless very effective in their ability to convince children and anyone who had fewer degrees than they did.

Today however I see the “RNA World” theorists (along with a host of other chemical evolutionist theories) as little more than modern mythmakers.  Despite enormous effort over more than 50 years they have come up utterly empty to show how life might have sprung up on its own in a “natural” as opposed to “supernatural” way.  If they could show even the tiniest logical way that an amino acid or some unknown building block could possibly proceed to cellular life it would give them some credit.  But they have nothing that is even remotely convincing except as a fairy tale for children or unsuspecting adults.

Of course there are many, many other problems with Darwinism such as the Cambrian Explosion.  It is not a question of the God of the Gaps.  It’s that the evolutionists have no legitimate or empirical means of describing the origin of species.  It’s always been, “Just trust us, we know more than you”.  Well, show the proofs then, because a lot of us don’t believe you anymore.   At the very least you’re going to have to wake up to the fact that Darwin himself concocted “pangenesis” years after his more famous theory.  Why didn’t they teach me about pangenesis in high school biology?  Perhaps because it reveals Darwin knew absolutely nothing about genetics, heredity or how life might change over time and he was not even a good observer of nature.
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