The History of the American Scientific Affiliation (Part 4)

| By (guest author) on Reading the Book of Nature


Perspectives on an Evolving Creation (2003) contains twenty-one chapters on historical, theological, biblical, philosophical, and scientific aspects of Evolutionary Creation. Eighteen months ago, Ted Davis serialized Robin Collins’ insightful chapter on “Evolution and Original Sin,” a crucial topic for such an anthology to cover. More than half of the authors are members of the American Scientific Affiliation. 


INTRO BY TEDIn each of the past three weeks, we’ve brought you Terry Gray’s short history of the American Scientific Affiliation, the oldest organization of Christian scientists in North America. Last week, Dr. Gray wrote about the 1980s and 1990s, when ASA members debated the relative merits of Intelligent Design and Evolutionary Creation. In the process, they became more sophisticated philosophically, theologically, and historically. In this final installment, he reviews recent developments and concludes by suggesting some lessons we might learn from the story of the ASA. The rest of this column was written by Dr. Gray.

Recent Developments

Previously we’ve learned about some major ASA publications—Modern Science and Christian Faith (1948 and 1950), Evolution and Christian Thought Today (1959), and Origins and Change (1978)—all of which brought original ideas about origins to wider audiences than just ASA members. In the same spirit, in 2003 Kansas State geologist Keith B. Miller edited a volume entitled Perspectives on an Evolving Creation (2003). While not actually an official ASA book, the editor and many of the twenty contributors were active members. State-of-the-art science relevant to evolution is reviewed and Christian perspectives on the science are offered. The scientific and theological articles are interspersed with brief devotionals written by some of the contributors.

Developments in biochemistry, molecular biology, and genetics have pushed many in the ASA fully to embrace evolutionary biology. In 1971, JASA featured a transcription of The Protein Clock, an episode of Hale Sparks’ popular CBS radio program, “The University Explorer”. The broadcast presented the comparative molecular data for evolution (amino acid sequences of proteins), which seemed to provide independent evidence for Darwin’s tree of life and convinced many that even major taxonomic groups were related (at the molecular level, there really are no gaps). Long standing critiques of macroevolution in the ASA began to dissolve as this data became well known.

Molecular geneticist Francis S. Collins, a prominent American scientist, is also a serious Christian. He is especially known for identifying and sequencing the genes for several human genetic pathologies, including cystic fibrosis and Huntington’s Disease. In 1993, he succeeded James Watson as head of the human genome project at the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) and is now Director of the NIH. In 2006, Collins published The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, in which he relates the story of his conversion from being an “obnoxious atheist” to becoming an evangelical Christian. A Fellow of the ASA, he was a keynote speaker at annual meetings in 2002, 2006, and 2010. In his opinion, human genetics and comparative genomics provide virtually irrefutable evidence for biological evolution, including the evolution of human beings, but Collins places evolution within the perspective of his deep Christian faith. In 2007, Collins established the BioLogos Foundation, “a community of evangelical Christians committed to exploring and celebrating the compatibility of evolutionary creation and biblical faith.” Although the ASA is not an advocacy organization, it has collaborated with BioLogos on several matters of common interest.


Ted notes: Though evolution is still sometimes discussed at ASA meetings, other topics now take the lion’s share of the agenda. For example, when the ASA met jointly with its British counterpart Christians in Science at Edinburgh in 2007, just four of the eighteen plenary lectures on the program dealt in some way with evolution, and none raised traditional creationist objections to it. Instead, participants heard about general relativity, biodiversity, neuroscience, and bioethics. As someone who once planned a career in astrophysics, my personal favorite was a brilliant lecture on “Binary Black Holes and Gravitational Waves: Opening New Windows onto the Universe,” by NASA scientist Joan Centrella, shown here. Photograph courtesy of NASA/Pat Izzo (image source).


Another key communicator within the ASA (and BioLogos) is geneticist Dennis Venema of Trinity Western University, an expert on the implications of the latest genetics research for common ancestry. Biologist and theologian Denis Lamoureux, occupant of the first Canadian university chair devoted to science and religion at St. Joseph’s College, University of Alberta, has also emerged as a key advocate for a fully evolutionary view within the ASA. With earned doctorates in dentistry, biology, and theology, Lamoureux has written a wide-ranging academic book, Evolutionary Creation (2008), and a more popular version with the catchy title, I Love Jesus and I Accept Evolution (2009). Like Collins, Lamoureux tells his personal religious journey from atheism to YEC crusader to ID advocate to evolutionary creationist. He argues that the ancient science found in the Bible is not itself divinely revealed; rather, it’s an accommodation to the prescientific understanding of the original audience. In other words, the Bible is the incidental, culturally relative medium in which God reveals the theological and redemptive message. In many ways Lamoureux’s views are similar to those advocated more than forty years ago by Richard Bube and Paul Seely, but his work is probably much better known than theirs outside the organization.

Despite an increasing openness to the biology of human evolution in the ASA, the biblical and theological issues continue to vex some ASA members. A high quality symposium at the annual meeting in 2009 (at Baylor University) was devoted to the topic, and the issue of the ASA Journal containing the papers sold more copies than any other issue in history. It appears that many members are still considering the options that were first proposed in Modern Science and Christian Faith all the way back in 1948.

Lessons Learned

The ASA has always taken science seriously. In general, members trust and follow the broader scientific community on technical matters, while at the same time the ASA has always been open to discussing alleged weaknesses in scientific theories. Of course, this is part of taking science seriously as a fallible form of human knowledge. A very large majority of ASA members accept the old universe/old earth cosmology, while many also accept biological evolution and see no conflict with a Christian perspective.

In order to do this, many ASA members gave up on the idea that detailed scientific claims are to be found in the Bible. Some have done this by adopting some form of limited inerrancy. Others interpret alleged scientific errors in the Bible as prescientific phenomenological claims employing the language of appearances. Either way, things such as the days of creation, the biological kinds of Genesis, geocentrism, the Genesis chronology, and so forth are simply not relevant to modern science, even from a Christian perspective. Equally important is the recognition that there is a difference between a theological claim and a scientific claim.

Seeing evolution as contradictory to creation prevented its adoption as a scientific theory. Placing evolution and creation in fundamentally different categories opened the door to embracing evolution as science and as part of God’s creation. Recognizing this distinction has allowed the ASA properly to critique an atheistic naturalism that uses science to support its non-scientific philosophical agenda.

Ultimately, the ASA seems willing to live with ambiguity. Its members realize that they do not have all the answers—neither theologically, nor scientifically, nor or at the interface of the two. Perhaps they will never have the answers; indeed, perhaps not having the answers is part of being finite creatures. Yet its members keep talking, even when they disagree, and this is surely a strength of the ASA as an organization. Christian faith, which includes the belief that God created all things, binds ASA members together. Exploring Creation as scientists in the context of this shared faith has always been, and still remains, their common task.


The nineteen participants at the second annual conference of the ASA (1947), held at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, represented almost one-quarter of the members. Ted notes: Just two of the five founding members were able to attend, Irving Cowperthwaite (front row, second from left) and Alton Everest (second row, first on the left). Even apart from an obvious demographical uniformity, this early gathering illustrates just how much the ASA has changed since its first decade. If anyone in this photograph accepted evolution, I cannot tell you his name. On the other hand, we find three of the ten men who left the ASA in 1963 to form the Creation Research Society: Presbyterian biblical scholar R. Laird Harris, the tall man in the dark suit on the front row; geneticist William J. Tinkle, behind Everest in the upper left corner; and Calvin College biologist Edwin J. Monsma, four places to the right of Tinkle. Standing next to Everest is Goshen College astrophysicist H. Harold Hartzler, whose pacifist temperament and beliefs would help hold competing ASA factions together in coming years. Photograph courtesy of the ASA.


Looking Ahead

Ted returns in two weeks to begin a new series.


Notes

Citations

MLA

Gray, Terry. "The History of the American Scientific Affiliation (Part 4)"
http://biologos.org/. N.p., 2 Jun. 2016. Web. 22 June 2017.

APA

Gray, T. (2016, June 2). The History of the American Scientific Affiliation (Part 4)
Retrieved June 22, 2017, from http://biologos.org/blogs/ted-davis-reading-the-book-of-nature/the-history-of-the-american-scientific-affiliation-part-4

References & Credits

In addition to the embedded links, the ideas of Denis Lamoureux are well worth exploring.

About the Author

Terry Gray's academic degrees are in Molecular Biology (Purdue University, B.S., 1980; University of Oregon, Ph.D., 1985). He has taught chemistry, biochemistry, and biology at Calvin College (1986-1997) and at Colorado State University and Front Range Community College (2011-present). From 1997 to 2011 he provided computer support for the CSU Chemistry Department.

More posts by Terry Gray

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