From Intelligent Design to BioLogos, Part 1: Early years
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.
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.
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.
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 Fellow of Biology for The BioLogos Foundation and associate professor of biology at Trinity Western University in Langley, British Columbia. His research is focused on the genetics of pattern formation and signalling.