From Intelligent Design to BioLogos, Part 2: Embracing Intelligent Design
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.
In the first post in this series, I described my early life and acquiring a “default” antievolutionary view that I later used to stand against evolution as an undergraduate student. In this post, I recount my subsequent exposure to, and enthusiastic embrace of, the Intelligent Design (ID) movement.
My introduction to Intelligent Design
It was not long after my (now embarrassing to me) actions that I recounted in the first post that I was first introduced to the ID movement through the work of Michael Behe. While I had been vaguely aware of Phillip Johnson’s 1991 book Darwin on Trial, I had not yet read any ID work in any depth. Ironically enough, I was introduced to ID by a vocally pro-evolution professor who ran a lab down the hall from the lab I worked in. She maintained a section of bulletin board outside her lab entitled “Crackpot’s corner” that featured all manner of creationist materials. One day, an essay by Behe entitled “Molecular Machines” appeared on the board. This essay presented the argument from “irreducible complexity” that later appeared in more detail in Behe’s 1996 book Darwin’s Black Box. That book appeared right when I was transitioning into graduate school, and I read it as a brand-new PhD student in late 1996, I believe.
I found Darwin’s Black Box electrifying, and confirming in great detail what I already believed: of course evolution could not produce anything genuinely novel. Of course evolution was powerless to explain the intricate complexity that I knew (at a surface level) from my undergraduate biology and biochemistry classes. Of course the irreducible complexity of life called out in clear terms for a Designer, given that natural mechanisms were powerless to explain it. Of course Darwinism had failed and was propped up only because atheistic scientists were not willing to face the consequences of admitting the universe had a Creator.
Though having read only one book, and certainly no critical commentary on it or its arguments (or ID arguments in general), I felt satisfied. Having “sorted the issue out”, I promptly shelved it and went on to other things. Graduate students have a lot on their plate, and I was busy, busy, busy – not least that I was learning how to teach Mendelian genetics for the first time as a Teaching Assistant, and getting my PhD research up and running – which meant a large amount of fruit fly (Drosophila) genetics. Slang for “Drosophila geneticist” is “fly pusher” – and I soon learned why: I was spending hours and hours glued to my stereomicroscope sorting anesthetized flies with a fine paintbrush: literally pushing flies. It didn’t take a Ph.D. to figure out that I had a lot of “dead” time on my hands with all this work, and I looked for ways to engage my brain in something constructive while mindlessly shoving diminutive insects around. While many students doing similar work often simply listened to music, I didn’t (and to this day I seldom do, for whatever reason).
I then made a pleasant discovery: as a graduate student at UBC, I was entitled to a library card at neighboring Regent College at no cost (free is always good when you’re a grad student). Regent is known internationally as a seminary with renowned scholars (J.I. Packer, Bruce Waltke and Gordon Fee taught there at this time, for example) and I soon went over looking for reading material. What I found was even better: Regent recorded most of their classes on cassette tapes and put those tapes into the library as items that could be checked out. There, for the taking, was the equivalent of auditing several decade’s worth of classes in exegesis, hermeneutics, and the like. I happened to attend Gordon Fee’s church at the time, so I started with one of his classes on one of Paul’s letters. I lugged in a tape deck and headphones from home, set it up by my stereoscope, and plugged in to the world of Pauline scholarship. I was hooked. Over the next few years, I would eventually exhaust the Regent library collection of Fee’s classes and move on to Waltke, N.T. Wright (a sometime visiting scholar at Regent), and many others.
Likewise, my understanding of science was maturing as a graduate student. One frequent activity in grad school was participating in what are known as “journal clubs” – a group of scientists and their grad students who get together to hash through a recent paper relevant to their discipline. What one learns in this sort of setting is invaluable – not least that not all papers, published though they may be, are of equal quality. Here I would see papers trashed for their poor experimental design and lack of appropriate controls, or vaunted for their elegance and powerful approach. I learned what makes a good experiment and what doesn’t. For the first time, I was approaching science as a (young) scholar, not as a student.
Looking back, this period of my life was profoundly formative and would later influence my coming reevaluation of evolution. I was learning science at a scholarly level for the first time as a graduate student, but also scholarly theology as well. Growing up in a church setting had not prepared me well for either, since evangelical communities (outside of major metropolitan settings near universities or seminaries) seldom have role models within the church to demonstrate how the life of the mind is not a threat to faith. Interestingly enough, my growth in these areas did not, at the time, affect my antievolutionary views, even as I learned the details of developmental genetics and explored scholarly ways of approaching the Bible, including Genesis. The only effect I can recall was that I became less interested in antievolutionary apologetics in general: not that my views changed, but that I was less eager to whack folks over the head with them. As such, I fell into a “holding pattern” that would persist until after my Ph.D. and landing a job at Trinity Western. It would be at an evangelical institution where at last I would be forced to revisit my views on evolution.
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.