Science and The Truth Project, Part 2

| By Dorothy Boorse

“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.




About the Author

Dorothy Boorse

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.