From Intelligent Design to BioLogos, Part 3: An Unexpected Opportunity
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 and second posts in this series, I described my early antievolutionary views and my subsequent exposure to, and enthusiastic embrace of, the Intelligent Design (ID) movement. In this post, I recount the crash-course I received at a conference in 2007, as I prepared to research evolution and Intelligent Design (ID) in depth for the first time.
After graduating from University of British Columbia (UBC) in 2003, I stayed on as a Post-doc to finish up a few experiments and get my “PhD paper” through the publication process. During this time I was casting about for the next step for myself and our young family (it was touch-and-go whether our first child would arrive in time to see daddy get his Ph.D.: as it was, he arrived a few days after). As I was travelling around and interviewing for postdoctoral positions, the job posting for Trinity Western University (TWU) came to my attention. Thinking it a long shot, I applied, and to my surprise got an interview – and later found out that my extra-curricular study at Regent College had made all the difference. So, in the fall of 2004, I took up a full-time job as a young assistant professor in biology at the largest evangelical university in Canada.
Early career at TWU
This was another “busy, busy, busy” phase – teaching courses for the first time, and getting my research up and running. It’s not surprising that this time was one of little reflection on evolution – there simply wasn’t the time. It was a topic, however, that came up more than it had at UBC: students at TWU were not afraid to ask questions about it, or to consider its theological implications. I also now had Christian colleagues with settled views on evolution: most in the biology department overtly accepted it, while one in environmental chemistry was (and is) an open supporter of the ID movement. When opportunity arose (for example, when I was away at conferences), I would invite this latter colleague to present his ID work to my introductory classes. These presentations received positive reviews from the students, and I used them to support my own, more subtle, intimations that evolution was an easily dismissed and highly speculative science. As such, the basic approach to evolution I had accepted as an uncritical undergrad / early grad student continued to hold, and I saw no reason to change it. Certainly the hectic pace of those early days (including a daughter born in the spring of my first year of teaching) was a contributing factor. There simply wasn’t time for any considered reflection on the topic.
In the fall of 2007 I was given an opportunity few young scholars can afford to pass up: the opportunity to publish an invited paper. Years before my arrival at TWU, a collection of essays had been written by several TWU faculty based on the general theme of “A Christian Perspective on…” that covered the various academic disciplines, from art to chemistry to philosophy. This collection was intended to be published in book form, but languished for over a decade for lack of finding a publisher. In 2007, however, a publisher was finally found, and the call was put out for everyone to revisit their decade-old work and polish it up for publication. Now a ten-year delay might not mean much for certain disciplines, but a decade in biology is a lifetime. For example, the biology chapter was written before genome projects were even on the radar. Clearly some major updating would be in order. As it happened, the author of the biology chapter had just retired and was not of a mind to rework the paper. He suggested that I come on board as a co-author to do the revision, and I happily agreed, thinking it an easy route to an all-important publication. This was all agreed to just before I was scheduled to leave for a conference – the 2007 National Association of Biology Teachers (NABT) meeting. Fine, I remember thinking – I can get cracking on this essay once I’m back from the States.
I was off to the NABT meeting to give a paper on some innovations I had hit upon for how to teach with fruit flies at a small institution. I had published a paper on this topic the year before, and that was enough to land me a presentation slot at the conference. Landing a slot meant I could get institutional support for attending, and off I went. Little did I know at the time how relevant this conference would be for the essay I needed to rework when I returned home. The headline speakers at the conference were all relevant. The keynote speaker was Francis Collins, speaking on the human genome project and mapping common genetic variation within human populations. I had heard Francis speak a few years before, so I was aware of his pro-evolution stance even though his talk at this conference was not about evolution per se but rather the personalized genomics revolution. The other featured presenters were all connected with the Kitzmiller vs. Dover Board of Education trial that had occurred in Pennsylvania a few years before: Ken Miller, biology professor at Brown University and expert witness for the prosecution, and the teachers from the Dover school who had refused to follow along with their school board’s decision to teach about Intelligent Design. The court case that resulted from the board adopting a pro-ID policy tested the constitutionality of teaching ID in the US public school system, and it was a dismal failure for the ID side. I had heard nothing about the case before, nor anything about any key players in the ID movement since the mid 1990s. So great was my ignorance that I raised my hand in a question period to ask the Dover teachers if they had had any feedback from theistic evolutionists on their ordeal. They laughed, and pointed out a few upcoming sessions to be given by Ken Miller, whom I had not heard of before. Later, I found a PBS NOVA documentary about the trial available as a DVD for purchase at the conference, so I bought a copy and watched it on my laptop that evening in my hotel room. It featured transcripts from the trial word-for-word as a re-enacted courtroom drama, and I was fascinated. I was catching up in a hurry, but I still was uncertain about where I stood on things personally.
On the flight home, my head was spinning. If nothing else, I realized that I knew virtually nothing about evolution or Intelligent Design; I had never seriously looked into either. If I was going to write anything even remotely credible on the topic, as I had now agreed to do, I had my work cut out for me. I also knew that Behe had just come out with a new book (Edge of Evolution), so I decided that I would start there upon my return. I had heard quite a bit of anti-ID rhetoric at the conference, and I remember thinking it best to look at the case for ID first, before looking at the case for evolution. It would turn out to be a fateful choice, as I will describe in the next post.
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.