Discussing Origins: Assessing the Strength of Evolutionary Science

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What happens when evolutionary creationists (represented by BioLogos), old-earth creationists (represented by Reasons to Believe), and Southern Baptist theologians sit down publicly and talk about origins? At the 2014 meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, these three groups decided to find out. This four-part series is adapted from the three-hour dialogue, entitled “A Conversation on Origins.” 2017 UPDATE: This dialogue has been published in greatly expanded form by InterVarsity Press in the new book Old-Earth or Evolutionary Creation?

Participants in the dialogue:

  • Jim Stump (JS)—BioLogos Content Manager, Philosopher
  • John Walton (JW)—BioLogos Advisory Board Member, Old Testament Scholar
  • Fazale “Fuz” Rana (FR)—Vice President of Research & Apologetics at Reasons to Believe, Biochemist
  • Robert Stewart (not identified in transcript)—Professor of Philosophy and Theology at New Orleans Baptist Seminary
  • Deborah Haarsma (DH)—BioLogos President, Astrophysicist
  • Ken Keathley (KK)—Professor of Theology and Director of the L. Russ Bush Center for Faith and Culture at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary
  • Darrel Falk (DF)—BioLogos Senior Advisor for Dialogue, Geneticist
  • Ken Samples (KS)—Senior research scholar at Reasons to Believe, Philosopher and Theologian
  • James K. Dew (not identified in transcript)—Associate professor of the history of ideas and philosophy and dean of the College at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary
  • Hugh Ross (HR)—President of Reasons to Believe, Astrophysicist

Jim Stump—We’re turning in this last session to scientific evidence.

Ken Keathley—Darrel, I’m going to direct this question towards you. Darrel, I’ve read your book, Coming to Peace with Science. Many in the room have as well. Why don’t you tell us why you do biology, do genetics, from an evolutionary perspective? Why are you an evolutionist?

Darrel Falk—I’m going to try to do this in a quick summary form. I’m going to focus in on the question of human creation, and whether God created humans through a gradual process or rather through a sudden process. I’m going to put it into two categories but focus mainly on genetics, in part because there’s a real flood in genetics data which has emerged over the last several years, and it is having a very significant influence on the question of did God create through an evolutionary process or not. I will say just a few things about fossil data. At the same time as genetics has been moving along, paleontology has been moving along very rapidly as well, so the situation is much different in terms of human and hominid fossils that have been discovered and dated from the last four or five million years—three million, two million and so on—you can see very significant progression, very gradual changes that are taking place, in the way that, if God created through a gradual process, one would anticipate.

There’s no question that the fossil record is still incomplete. There’s still a tremendous amount of data probably buried there in the rocks, I would assume. A great example of that would be five or six years ago when a new species—although as I was saying during the break, it’s kind of hard to define species when one doesn’t have living organisms, all you have is some bones and some DNA—but a new species, if we can call it that, was discovered in Siberia, based upon not having essentially any bones other than a finger bone and a tooth. From that, they extracted the genome; they were able to look at DNA. This was two individuals that contributed the DNA and lived about 30,000 years ago. We have the entire genome complete, gene by gene, DNA base by DNA base, the entire sequence. The point I want to make first of all is that increasingly, we are seeing hominid species that fit a pattern of gradual change consistent with what one would expect if God created through the evolutionary process. This is something which is emerging really quite rapidly now and this is especially true of results coming in over the last ten or twenty years. But at the same time, since we’re still discovering new species represented—in at least one case—by only a few bones, this tells us that we likely only have a small percentage of what’s actually there.

Moving on to the genetics, I’d like to point out a couple of things which I think are really, really strong evidence for creation through common descent, and I hope I can do this in about three minutes. We can determine mutation rates, okay? How is this done? Well, for example, we can sequence the genomes of both parents and their children , —this has been done for a number of families.. By looking at new DNA code found in a child, but not his/her parents, we can determine the rate of change (i.e. mutation). From that, we can say, “Here’s how frequently the gene is changing in one generation, because we have the DNA sequence of the parents and we can look at how many changes have taken place in the child in that one generation.” So we can extrapolate from that, and we can say, “Okay, we know the rate of mutation.” So, let’s pose a particular question: Did chimpanzees and humans have a common ancestor? We know how much genetic difference there is between chimpanzees and human beings. A gradual-process model of creation says that there was a common ancestral-species somewhere around six or seven million years ago.” So we can trace backwards and say how much difference ought there be between humans and chimpanzees if they had a common ancestor from which both species are derived. Remember, we know the mutation rate. What we find is almost exactly (i.e. within two-fold) the number of differences you would predict, given that we know the mutation rate.

Furthermore, we know that certain kinds of mutations are quite common. We know why they are common and the studies of mutation rate with parents and their children show just how frequently this particular class of mutation occurs. Amazingly, if we go back and look at the difference between chimpanzees and humans, we can see that the differences between chimpanzees and humans are much greater in spots where we know from parent/child studies that lots of mutations occur. Based on the model that God created through a gradual process from a common ancestor six or seven million years ago this is exactly what one would expect. So that’s point number one and that’s really strong evidence. It’s hard to think of another explanation of that, actually.

The second thing I want to talk about from the perspective of genetics is that there are changes in the genome that are referred to as “synonymous.” This means there are different ways of “saying” the same thing; differing ways of coding which nonetheless make exactly the same product. So when we compare humans and chimpanzees, there’s a lot of synonymous changes that have taken place, but a dearth of non-synonymous changes. If the common descent model were true, this is exactly what we’d predict. Non-synonymous changes would change the coding and would, thereby, frequently result in low viability or lethality. Hence if common descent were true, they’d not be effectively passed through the generations and as we look at chimpanzees and humans today, such changes would be more rare--exactly what we observe.

Another example, which is much discussed, actually: there are millions of insertions, where a little bit of extra DNA gets added to the genome, and also many deletions, where a little piece is cut out. When we compare humans and chimps we might see, for example, that a specific deletion is found in both species, where we find that exact same deletion at the exactly same the spot, missing exactly the same units. Indeed we find that exact same deletion in orangutans, chimps, humans and gorillas, and this implies that it has been inherited through descent from a single common ancestor. I want to acknowledge that some would say that this specific deletion is present in all four species because it has functional significance. Reasons to Believe thinks this way; they think the same deletion is present in all species because it’s functionally important. But the point is there are literally hundreds of thousands of these deletions (or insertions). Frequently, if the position of the insertion or deletion was just one unit to the right or the left it wouldn’t make any functional difference. But species which have these insertions or deletions have exactly the same boundaries. Since this is exactly what you’d expect if the change occurred in an ancestral species and then was passed on to all descendants it implies very strongly that God created through an evolutionary process.

KK—Fuz, you at Reasons to Believe have a different perspective, and you’re looking at the same information. Is it all a matter of hermeneutics? What’s going on here?

Fazale Rana—I think, to begin with, we at Reasons to Believe again look at the idea that Adam and Eve were special creations made through God’s direct intervention. As a result of that, we’re again skeptical of the idea that there is some kind of evolutionary connection between humans and the hominins. So then the task becomes how do you explain the data that Darrel was discussing, which looks like it presents very powerful, in fact overwhelming evidence for common descent? The approach that we would take is that those shared features reflect common design, not common descent.

This is not simply, I would argue, an ad hoc assertion on our part, but actually has a rich history in biology. Prior to Darwin, the most eminent biologist, at least in the United Kingdom, was Sir Richard Owen, who in fact developed a very elaborate theoretical framework based on what’s known as the “vertebrate archetype” to explain shared features in organisms. Richard Owen basically argued, again, that the homologies that we see, the shared features that we see anatomically, reflect an archetypical design that exists in the mind of the first cause, that then is manifested in the created order. The idea is that he was able to explain the evidence that, in effect, is used to argue for common descent in a design-friendly framework.

Then Darwin comes along, Darwin replaces Owen’s archetype with a common ancestor but relies very heavily on the ideas of Sir Richard Owen. Let’s fast-forward; can we apply that same type of framework to the shared genetic features that Darrel’s talking about? The reason I believe why the argument for common descent is essentially, in the scientific community, considered to be “the” interpretation has to do with the idea of methodological naturalism, that contemporary science functions in a framework that doesn’t allow design explanations to be entertained to account for features in biology, let alone other areas of nature. But if you relax that requirement of methodological naturalism, now you can actually entertain the possibility of common design as opposed to common descent as being a competitive hypothesis.

In light of that, the way in which you would conclude common descent as opposed to common design would be two requirements for those shared features: one that Darrel touched upon, in that those features that you’re looking at are non-functional, because again it doesn’t make sense for a creator to introduce non-functional sequences that are identical in corresponding regions of genomes in humans and the great apes. The other assumption you’re making, and these are kind of related, is that the mechanism that produced those shared features must be a rare, random event. If it’s not a rare, random event, you could make an argument that maybe those shared features, even if they are non-functional, actually may have arisen independently in those genomes.

To me, the exciting thing that’s happening in biology is the recognition that what we thought were non-functional sequences in the human genome are turning out to have function. It’s going beyond, for example, identifying an isolated function for a pseudogene here or there. There’s actually a theoretical framework that’s being proposed called the “competitive endogenous RNA hypothesis” that provides an elegant framework that naturally explains pseudogene function. The implication is that pseudogene function is universal, not representing isolated cases. There’s the ENCODE [Encyclopedia of DNA Elements] Project that arguably is indicating that, at minimum, eighty percent of the human genome consists of functional DNA.

Darrel mentioned “synonymous mutations.” We’re discovering that synonymous mutations may actually have functional consequences when it comes to the production of proteins and the way that proteins fold. The point being that what we attributed historically as non-functional sequences are turning out to be functional, and if that’s the case, then I think it’s legitimate to say that these features represent common design. In addition to that, we’re discovering that processes that we thought were random and rare actually turn out to be non-random and repeatable. For example, there’s growing evidence that indicates that retroviral insertions into the human genome or into any genome is actually non-random. The insertion is at highly specific sites. This actually is very important, because people are looking at using retroviruses as a carrier piece of DNA to introduce healthy genes into genomes when people need gene-replacement therapy. The fact that you can actually predict where the insertion is going to happen is really critical, and people that are looking at gene replacement therapy are doing a lot of work in characterizing this. We even are beginning to understand what’s actually dictating the insertion sites for things like retroviruses. The point is that what we thought to be rare, random events are actually repeatable.

One of the things we’ve done at Reasons to Believe is produce a genomics model. We actually will publish a skeleton of that genomics model in an update to Who is Adam? that’s coming out sometime next year. Again, in response to the types of data that Darrel is speaking about. Our model basically says that shared features in genomes can be explained as either as reflecting common design either in terms of form and function, or may reflect independent origin events that happened in human and great apes’ genomes. This is very much in the preliminary stage, but the point I’m making is that given that our conviction that Scripture is teaching that Adam and Eve are de novo creations, it is possible to account for this data that is interpreted in an overwhelming sense as evidence for common descent in an alternate framework. In order to produce or advance this as a viable model, you’ve got to relax the requirements of methodological naturalism. It’s not an ad hoc explanation because it does have a rich history in biology prior to Darwin, going back to people like Richard Owen.

Hugh Ross—As an astronomer looking at the papers, I think we need to be cautious about reading so much certainty into the published results, in the sense that the signal-to-noise ratios are not large. It’s very difficult to get a measure of the random errors, let alone the systematic errors. When it comes to mutation rates, we know those mutation rates change with respect to time. There are radiation events that vary over time. It’s very difficult to say that we’ve got an accurate handle that the mutation rate hasn’t changed over the last 6.5 million years. I think there’s very good evidence that it must have changed. But in trying to measure the changes, it’s basically still, “We don’t know.” So I think we need to be cautious about not over-interpreting the data. I think better data’s going to come. But at this point, we need to be very circumspect.

JS—I was going to say the same thing in respect to biblical interpretation, perhaps. If that same sort of humility is demanded of the scientific evidence, can we say, too, Fuz, that if it weren’t for your commitment to that particular biblical interpretation, that you would be persuaded by the scientific evidence for common ancestry?

FR—That’s a great question. Perhaps. Perhaps I would. There are still things that I see that are troubling to me in terms of just simply embracing the standard evolutionary model. For example, I see things like convergence as being problematic for a standard evolutionary model. When I look at the nature of the evolutionary mechanism, it sure seems to me like it’s historically contingent, and in fact I can point to a number of papers where people are arguing mechanistically that it looks like, again, evolution must be historically contingent. So the net effect of that is that evolution should generate identical or near-identical outcomes, or if it happens, it should be rare. And what we see is that convergence, whether it’s at a molecular level, all the way to an organismal level, convergence seems to be characteristic of the biological realm. So that, to me, is something that doesn’t seem to be compatible. I know Simon Conway Morris interprets that in a very provocative way in an evolutionary framework. But he’s not proposing something I would call a standard evolutionary view, necessarily.

JS—That creates lots of problems for Neo-Darwinianism, if we’re just going to say the whole thing is explained by random genetic mutation plus natural selection. Convergence causes lots of problems.

FR—I appreciate your point about humility with respect to biblical interpretation. I’m a biochemist, but as I look at the text, as I look at the arguments that are being laid out, my conviction is I don’t see how you get around the view that there was a historical Adam and Eve that were the first human beings. There does seem to be, when I look at the biblical text, a de novo creation. Again, I’m not a biblical scholar, but that’s the conviction that I have, and that’s a conviction that’s shared by a lot of people in the church. So I look at my project as being, if that’s the case, then how do we take what appears to be this evidence for common descent—in fact, I would make the argument that we’re seeing a lot of discoveries about function in the genome where we thought those regions were non-functional. I think there was a delay time in recognizing that function because the evolutionary paradigm and the nature of how the genome was interpreted was one that retarded recognition of that function. I do think that there’s value in a design perspective, if you will. It does represent a different paradigm that may have actually accelerated recognizing that function. Granted, evolutionary biologists are the ones who are actually making these discoveries, but I think the time frame from recognizing these different sequence elements to the time frame that we actually saw the recognition of function of so-called “junk DNA” was much larger than it needed to be.

Jim Stump—I’m always interested in trying to clarify things, because I’m not a scientist and I want to make sure I understand what scientists are saying. Are you suggesting, then, that what God did was that he somehow used all of the same, or mostly the same, genomic information, genetic information—deletions, insertions, mutations, pseudogenes, all that found in the upper primates—used all that same material as a pattern to create Adam and Eve de novo? That’s the position you’re advocating? So there’s no reason why there couldn’t be that continuity between them, scientifically, genetically, as a matter of fact you would argue for that. But you believe from the biblical record that you have to make that distinction. Is that correct?

FR—Yes.

JS—Okay, thanks.

Audience member—My question has to do with the utility of methodological naturalism for Christians investigating these things. Jim Stump, you had expressed that BioLogos holds to the biblical miracles and that God can interpose into the durable universe miracles. I’m wondering when, say on an issue like the origin of life or if a scientist were present at the resurrection or resuscitation of Lazarus, when would the employment of methodological naturalism by a Christian warrant a belief in, say, divine causation, design?

JS—The issue of methodological naturalism is a tricky one. We are not a priori committed to methodological naturalism as though that’s the only way science can possibly be conducted. I think, and perhaps we don’t have a BioLogos position on this either, but I think methodological naturalism is a contingent value of the majority of practicing scientists right now and that if another model were proposed that gave a better explanation for how science works, that that could in fact win the day. But we don’t think it’s going to right now.

Your question about the origin of life is one that Fuz has already said, “There’s nothing close to a scientific consensus of a natural explanation for the origin of life.” BioLogos would not be opposed in principle to saying, “We think God snapped his fingers and—poof—made a first cell that started replicating.” Maybe that’s what happened. But we think it’s worthwhile to continue examining the natural explanations right now. And we think, as opposed to Reasons to Believe, we’ve been persuaded that those kinds of natural explanations for the development of life, not the origins of life, are sufficiently plausible that we can say, “We think this is how God created.”

Even an atheistic scientist like Richard Dawkins is explaining how God created, even though he doesn’t know that that’s what he’s doing. But by providing explanations according to science, we’re getting better at understanding how God did this. Now, our friends here are going to say, “We don’t think you have those kinds of explanations yet.” And that’s where the disagreements are on the scientific evidence of whether there are those kinds of explanations yet. I talked around several times what you asked specifically, though. Is there something else in there that we should address?

Audience member—Here’s a quote from the 1870s by a scientific naturalist criticizing Darwin. He’s going to say that Darwin as a scientist was wrong to say, “God breathed life into the first organism,” as he does in one of the editions of Origins of Species. A scientist—again, this is from a scientific naturalist’s point of view in the late 1800—a scientist must always assume a natural cause for any event. If you don’t have one, then you remain silent in humility for centuries, if needed, until one is discovered. So part of my question is when is there a warranted belief that a natural cause isn’t there, that there was divine action? Is there a model for that?

JS—That’s what I think we would disagree on, whether there is sufficient evidence to say there was a natural explanation for how God did that.

DH—I’ve never liked the term “methodological naturalism,” personally. But there are people in the BioLogos community who have found it to be a helpful term to distinguish the methods most scientists use from philosophical naturalism. You can look for the natural chain of cause and effect as a method, apart from all of the atheistic overtones and reductionistic overtones. For me, though, the term always sounds a little bit like “I’m pretending to be an atheist,” like I have to set aside my faith somehow when I go to my computer to do astronomy. “I’m going to pretend there is no God; I’m just going to look for these natural processes.” That’s not how I approach my work at all. When I’m doing science, for me, looking for those natural processes, the efficacy of them, it is all based on God’s very character. It’s based on the fact that he is faithfully governing the universe in such a consistent manner that we can actually write down equations and make predictions about what would happen next. In Jeremiah 33, God talks about his covenant with Israel and God says to Jeremiah, “I’m going to be faithful in keeping my covenant, as faithful as I am in sustaining the fixed laws of heaven and Earth, the laws of day and night.” He’s talking about the natural patterns and the regularity in those. God’s pointing to that and saying, “That’s the kind of faithfulness I have.” So when we do science as Christians, we’re not pretending to be atheists; we’re looking at the world God has made.

HR—Let me offer theological support for methodological naturalism. Genesis 1: For six days, God creates; on the seventh day, he ceases his work of creation. Which means a scientist doing research in the seventh day—and you know we are a day-age organization, so we believe we’re still in the seventh day, and as such, we would expect, based on Scripture, all we’re going to see in the human era is natural causation. However, previous to the human era, that’s an era when we could see both natural processes and divine intervention or interaction. Therefore, we say scientifically, we could distinguish between a non-theistic interpretation of the history of the universe and the history of life, in that if indeed there is no God involved, we’ll see no discontinuity between the seventh day and the rest of the history of the universe and the Earth. But if God is in fact acting, then we would see a difference between what science is revealing in the six days and before the six days, and what we see on Day Seven.

HR—[closing prayer] Father, we want to thank you for giving us the time to dialogue about these different issues. Thank you, Lord, that there is interest in these issues. Thank you that there is recognition that this is both theologically and scientifically important. And, Father, I pray that you grant all of us the humility, the grace, and the wisdom, Lord, to not give up this subject, but to press forward so that we can more clearly see the truth that you want us to understand, but more than that, to apply it. In Jesus’ name, Amen.


Notes

Citations

MLA

Editorial Team, BioLogos. "Discussing Origins: Assessing the Strength of Evolutionary Science"
http://biologos.org/. N.p., 3 Feb. 2015. Web. 21 July 2017.

APA

Editorial Team, B. (2015, February 3). Discussing Origins: Assessing the Strength of Evolutionary Science
Retrieved July 21, 2017, from http://biologos.org/blogs/archive/discussing-origins-biologos-reasons-to-believe-and-southern-baptists-part-4

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