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Science and The Truth Project, Part 2

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November 5, 2013 Tags: Christian Unity, History of Life

Today's entry was written by Dorothy Boorse. 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.

Science and The Truth Project, Part 2

“Would you be willing to do me a favor?” an administrator asked me several years ago. “Could you watch Focus on the Family’s The Truth Project videos and review the part on science?” It turns out that a friend of the college where I work was much impressed by the Truth Project, a DVD-based small group curriculum designed by Focus on the Family and intended to provide a look at life from a biblical perspective, and had been showing the DVDs in their home. My colleague was uneasy about whether the program represented the interaction between science and faith well. He wondered if I could offer any wisdom.

I sweat bullets (so to speak) writing this review. My goals were to accurately reflect concerns about the content, but also to use a tone that modeled the respect for other’s opinions that I hope I am able to teach to my students. In contentious issues, I believe it is even more important to be kind and loving than in everyday issues. Science and faith relations are, unfortunately, oftentimes very contentious and I wanted my work to reflect the highest level of generosity of spirit as well as truth. When I completed the review, I sent it with a polite email to Del Tackett, the narrator of the Truth Project. I received a quick response that it had been received and would be read at a later time, but no other response. The original friend of the college, and several others in the college community, though, found my review to be very helpful, and at least one person changed their point of view as a result.

It is always painful to disagree with sincere people, but I hope this review reflects truth-seeking, a search for places of agreement, and a spirit of love in an expression of disagreement.

Note: This repost of Dorothy Boorse’s full review is continued from yesterday on The BioLogos Forum.


Unfortunately, throughout Lesson Five- Science: What is True? Tackett repeats some dubious science aimed at discrediting all levels of evolutionary process. The molecular biology of evolutionary theory is reviewed quite critically by Miller (2000) and I won’t go into it here. However, one criticism of Miller’s examples is that it is difficult to tell the difference between A) a character being irreducibly complex and B) it simply looking irreducibly complex because we don’t have enough information to fully understand it. How can we be certain we are not just ignorant of the reducible elements? Arguing that a character is irreducibly complex because we cannot find a reducible state is an argument from the null, and is not logically tenable.

The fossil record description, something I know more about, is mistaken on several counts. For example, Tackett asks about Archaeopteryx: “Is it a transitional form or simply its own fully formed species?” This question reveals confusion about evolutionary theory. An evolutionary biologist would say, “What kind of a question is that? Of course it is both!” As a transitional form, a member of the genus Archaeopteryx wasn’t a failed bird. It was the hottest thing, the newest version of a reptile with features none of the others had. Eventually, the species that developed from it and its descendents had no traditionally reptile features and were considered birds, but at the time it lived Archaeopteryx was its own type (or group of) of very successful organism(s). This is true for the other examples Tackett gives of things that are hard to imagine in a less evolved form. For example, a number of fossils of dinosaurs with early down-like feathers and feathers on non-flying dinosaurs (Norell et al 2002) suggests that it is less hard to imagine a feather intermediate than Tackett thinks. Those dinosaurs with such feathers would not have been using them to fly but probably to maintain body temperature. Had the lectures represented any of the points of view in which theists believe that God uses natural processes in the creation of new species, the objections Tackett supplies would not have seemed compelling. For those interested, transitional forms are covered in a number of books (Miller 2000, Martin 2004).

The Galapagos finch discussion was also a misrepresentation of evolutionary theory. The Galapagos Islands have several species of finches. Most biologists believe they are derived from one ancestral species that arrived on the island, went to other islands, and adapted to each enough to fill different niches and to fail to breed with the others when they did overlap. Modern studies have shown two things: first, that two species with slightly different beaks develop greater differences in their beaks when they live on the same island than they do when they live separately. This is called “character displacement.” Second, that periods of extreme selection pressure cause some members of a species to die and leave the remaining members of the species with different character traits and a population with different genetic composition.

Both of these types of studies answer the question, “In real time, can we see evidence that natural selection changes the genetic ratios in a population?” The answer is yes. Neither study is an example of permanent change. Evolutionary theory does not suggest that they are. Tackett mentions only one study from a thirty-year period of finch studies. In the study he describes, finch beaks change size in a population as a result of drought. Tackett claims that the subsequent return of beak sizes to the original when the weather returned to normal was a sign that evolutionary theory is wrong.

An evolutionist would say, “What? Of course you would expect that outcome!” If the environment changes once to select for a change in characteristics and then the environment changes again so that the original traits are selected for, evolutionary theory would predict that population allele frequencies SHOULD return to the original.

Scientists making claims about Galapagos finches are not claiming that a short-term drought is the reason we have so many species of finches. They believe a variety of effects including the founder effect, the bottleneck effect, behavioral and other types of isolation, and natural selection affecting birds on individual islands have all been a part of producing speciation events over long periods of time and that the events we see in real time support a pattern we would expect to see if this were true.

Finally, Tackett does not clearly spell out an alternative to evolutionary theory that would be supported by science and the Bible. He does not seem to be claiming young earth creationism, as he would need to address the age of the earth. If he believes the earth to be old, the alternative cannot be as simple as God creating on seven individual days, whether all at once a short time ago, or separated by millions of years. The millions of species that have lived on the planet appear in the fossil record at millions of different times. The order is not exactly the same as that in Genesis 1, and so any alternative that does not include evolution would need to have millions of individual acts of separate creation in a pattern that does not clearly match a traditional reading of the Bible.

Many Christians solve this by accepting some type of “progressive creationism,” overviewed by Wright (2002). They believe that God created in bursts corresponding in some rough way to the creation of basic “kinds” in scripture (possibly phyla) over a period of “days” or eras. Then some type of diversification of species occurred via evolution. While biologists might not agree that such a view was scientifically well supported, such a concept would be appealing to Christians because it would explain the creation story, allow some level of evolution, would retain miraculous intervention for the beginning of life and creation of humans, would allow for continued speciation events we see today and would limit the number of separate creation events. I have several acquaintances who would hold this type of view and who would call it a belief in Intelligent Design.

The problem is that Tackett’s dispute of the Galapagos finch example removes such a version of Intelligent Design from the table. The finch example is simply about diversification within a single group of closely related species, something that would have needed to happen many, many times for this type of progressive creationism to be true. If this level of evolution is not acceptable, then all species have to be separately created without the use of natural laws, and we are left with millions and millions of separate creation events. Because Tackett has associated Intelligent Design with a complete dismissal of evolution even on the level of the family or genus, a large number of people who would accept both supernatural intervention by God and some measure of evolution could not identify themselves with the Intelligent Design label.

In summary, while Tackett’s lectures rightly support the truth that God is the creator and nature declares his glory, and while he is correct that there are outspoken anti-religious scientists, Tackett sets up a false dichotomy between evolution and faith, based on statements by people holding extreme positions with whom he disagrees. His lecture ignores a rich complexity of discussion, and poorly represents evolutionary theory, which he has wrongly defined as a worldview. I myself have a view that God has used a great deal of evolution in the creation of species but that it is certainly possible he intervened any number of times. The most likely times for God to have intervened seem to many Christians to be the origin of life and the endowment of the human soul. Unfortunately, such a position is not represented in the film at all, although it seems fairly common among the Christian biologists I know. I believe that a better lecture series might have attempted to pull together science and faith and would have represented more accurately the beliefs of a cross section of devout Christians in the sciences.


Literature

 


Dorothy Boorse, Ph.D. is Professor of Biology at Gordon College. She studies wetland ecology, invertebrates, vernal pools and salt marshes, and is also passionate about connecting science and faith communities, increasing women and minorities in science, and supporting science literacy. She teaches, does research with students, and has just co-authored an environmental science textbook for undergraduates.

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Hanan D - #83438

November 5th 2013

The most likely times for God to have intervened seem to many Christians to be the origin of life

Interesting because Francis Collins actually suggests this not be somewhere where someone should rest his faith because he claims in the future, we might actually find natural explanations to the origins of life

 

and the endowment of the human soul. 

Given evolution, when exactly was a soul endowned to man?


melanogaster - #83445

November 6th 2013

“Interesting because Francis Collins actually suggests this not be somewhere where someone should rest his faith because he claims in the future, we might actually find natural explanations to the origins of life”

What does the evidence say? Wouldn’t the evidence be far more important to you than what people say, assuming you are seeking truth?

“Given evolution, when exactly was a soul endowned to man?”

Simpler question: given reality, when does ensoulment occur for a single human being?


Hanan D - #83446

November 6th 2013

>What does the evidence say? Wouldn’t the evidence be far more important to you than what people say, assuming you are seeking truth?

I don’t know what the evidence says, but then again, I am not commenting on it this way or that. I am just making an observation on how two people see this particular issue.

>Simpler question: given reality, when does ensoulment occur for a single human being?

Good question, but it is unrelated to what I asked.


2cortenfour - #83473

November 7th 2013

“The millions of species that have lived on the planet appear in the fossil record at millions of different times. The order is not exactly the same as that in Genesis 1, and so any alternative that does not include evolution would need to have millions of individual acts of separate creation in a pattern that does not clearly match a traditional reading of the Bible.”

This is exactly right. As soon as people try to fit millions of years of death, disease, decay, and “survival of the fittest” into Genesis, historical and theological problems arise.
The fossil record/geological strata can be explained one of two ways:
1. It represents millions and millions of years of earth history, or
2.  The layers represent the result of the global catastrophe described in Scripture - Noah’s Flood.
If #1 is true, then apparently death, disease, suffering and futility (Rom 8:20) are somehow “very good” (Gen 1), and were all part of God’s original creation. Also, the Flood of Noah could not have happened as described, since such a global upheaval would have no doubt mixed up the layers of strata, so that we would not have a reliable record today.
But if #2 is the truth, then death, disease, corruption and mayhem were NOT part of God’s “very good” creation from the beginning. Instead the blame for all these ills is laid at the feet of mankind: “Cursed is the ground because of you”. (Gen 3:17)
Two different starting points lead to strikingly different conclusions. The evolutionary view, informed by the assumption of geological uniformitarianism, leads one to deny the Genesis narrative (including Creation and the Flood, a la 2 Peter 3:5-7) as historically accurate. This casts a nefarious shadow of doubt upon not only Genesis, but Scripture as a whole, since the New Testament writers affirmed the Genesis account.  For example, Jesus said humans were made “male and female” - When? -  “at the beginning of creation” (Mark 10:6), not millions of years later. Peter and Paul and Jude, etc also treat Genesis as historical narrative, not myth.  The Darwinist view rings of… “Did God really say…?”
But the biblical view assumes that Scripture is not only theologically accurate, but also true regarding any subject it touches upon (history, geology, etc).  Geological and fossil evidence is examined in this light, and we see exactly what you would expect if there was a worldwide catastrophic Flood: billions of dead creatures buried quickly and fossilized; fossils of sea creatures at the highest elevations on earth (because all the high hills were covered); multiple layers of strata “bent” but not fractured - a sign that an upheaval folded them before they hardened, and that they were laid down in quick succession; and other evidences which point to catastrophism, not uniformitarianism. The exegetical (more accurately *eisegetical*) machinations are unnecessary: the Bible is simply true.


beaglelady - #83484

November 8th 2013

So there really is a firmament over the earth holding back the waters above, and the stars are set in the firmament?


Lou Jost - #83498

November 9th 2013

“...We see exactly what you would expect if there was a worldwide catastrophic Flood.”  This was definitively refuted over 150 yrs ago by pre-Darwinian Christian bible-believing scientists with no contrary axe to grind. Someone who believes in a young earth and flood geology today is ignoring the last century and a half of discoveries in not only geology but physics, cosmology, and biology. Such a person is also ignoring obvious facts about the world, and is grossly mistaken in his claims about the evidence for a global flood.

2cortenfour, maybe you are honest and have just been misled by pastors or priests. If so, a little research in the secular literature would be highly recommended, so that you can see the multiple independent lines of evidence that prove the earth and its biota are old, and that there was never a global flood.

I do agree with your assessment of what the errors in Genesis tell us about the truth value of the bible, though….


bren - #83557

November 19th 2013

I’m glad to see that biologos finally decided to comment on the truth project.  I took the time to watch all the way through this series, and I can say that it’s well packaged and gives the impression of sitting through university lectures by an authoritative but approachable professor, one who you can trust to give you the last word on everything for which there happens to be a last word (though I haven’t the foggiest what especially qualifies Tackett for his global review of history, science, social science etc).

Seems like pretty exciting stuff for any first-year university student in the market for an all-powerful worldview with the ammunition to defend it in any arena, and Tackett is definitely dealing.  I was especially interested to see the science section, suspecting that it would be cringe-worthy.  It was.  Wasn’t even very inventive, it was last week’s leftovers with some cgi seasoning to make it palatable. 

The series was an interesting idea, designed to fit a need in the Christian world, with a fairly natural teacher at the helm.  The need is for Christians to integrate their understanding of different aspects of the world (science, philosophy, history) with their overall Christian vision of reality.  Assuming this is a workable project, it’s probably a reasonable one.

He does it by making the same mistake (if it can be called that) that is constantly repeated; he doesn’t take the world as he finds it (whether or not it happens to fit pre-conceived notions, which it never will), he makes assumptions about how he should find it if his Christian intuition is spot-on, and then re-works or dismisses any incoming data to line up with these assumptions (or just quotes and interviews someone who has done the re-working for him).

Then he takes this giant cookie-cutter and applies it to every field he can think of with his assigned budget, and serves some serious slap-down to the “experts” on every topic that he has no real competence to assess.  This is made ok by his interviews with other “experts” who happen to agree with him, irrespective of their involvement in the field that they are discussing.  It’s not all wrong, but way too much of it doesn’t represent the common conclusions of those who are active researchers in any of these domains (or even of those respected outsiders who are critical of the current research agendas).  Christians deserve better, intellectually speaking, and so long as the world is watching, they need to avoid embarrassingly blinkered re-interpretations of reality, all in the name of fitting reality in a more portable carrying case.

Otherwise, thanks for the balanced and polite review.  Obviously, the biologos blogs aren’t always correct (given that they are exploring a difficult, touchy and ambiguous interface between Christianity and science, this is no surprise), but to their credit, they are almost always gracefully delivered, something that isn’t always easy considering the tone with which they are usually opposed.


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