Q&A: Astrobiologist Stephen Freeland
This month, Stephen Freeland, project manager for the NASA Astrobiology Institute research team based at the University of Hawaii, posted a four part essay on The BioLogos Forum (originally appearing in the journal Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith) exploring the evolutionary origins of genetic information. The post offers thoughtful musings on the nature of science and scientific discovery and addresses several arguments raised by Intelligent Design theory. We sat down with Dr. Freeland to learn a bit more about his work, as well as his personal journey in harmonizing science and faith.
1. What's the most fascinating thing about God's creation that you've learned throughout your scientific studies?
What a good question! I could talk easily about my joy at discovering odd species and interesting behaviors, about the harmonies and patterns that link nature or, more philosophically, about the wonder of a universe that is, to a significant extent, understandable. But honestly, when I really think through this question, the answer is that I think I have learned through science how human understanding is finite. I have learned some spiritual humility (and I am sure more is needed). During my teenage years, I gravitated to what some might call "fundamentalism" - a version of Christianity that was confident about what every part of the Bible meant. I think science taught me humility about what we don't know and what we cannot know -- and how much of what seems certain today is turned on its head by something we discover tomorrow.
From the findings of Goedel and Heisenberg to the great breakthroughs of every famous scientist to my own small steps in evolutionary biology, science tells a clear message about the foolishness of thinking we can be certain of our current understanding. That, to me, is a fundamental lesson taught by scientific studies which I have transitioned into my faith: what I think I know is a flawed human's understanding of a deeper truth beyond my grasp. I do not find that demoralizing. If nothing else, it tells me that there will always be new, further, deeper insights to learn. Turning to faith, it tells me that tomorrow's spiritual growth may cause me to fundamentally rethink some spiritual truth that I thought I knew today. Above all, it helps me understand why Jesus calls me to turn my spiritual judgments inwards rather than direct them at others who may have seen further (or just different) into that infinite Truth.
I perceive this message of humility from science is deeply and dangerously misunderstood. It seems to me as if the further people are from practicing science, the more sure they are that science deals in proofs and certainties.
2. What's one thing about your work as a scientist that you wish more people understood?
Ah, time to ramp back to a simple humble plea. The "genetic code" is NOT the same thing as "DNA". Popular media have so much to answer for here by constantly churning out misleading headlines such as "scientists crack the genetic code of [insert text]" when they mean "scientists find the DNA encoding [insert text]". The genetic code has a specific meaning: it is the general rule book by which almost all organisms translate -- literally translate -- DNA into proteins. One rulebook applies to all genes in all these organisms. The difference is between a particular string of dots and dashes (say, the DNA for an interesting bacterium) and a rule book of Morse code that tells you how to interpret this AND ANY OTHER message (the genetic code). Why do I care? Because I study how the rulebook evolved, and far too many smart people find it increasingly hard to hear that because they are sure I must be studying a particular piece of DNA. That leads to confusion, frustration and wasted effort all around!
Now, if you asked me "What's one thing about your work as a scientist that you wish more CHRISTIANS understood?", then my answer would be: I would wish with all my heart that more Christians understood how much practicing science has enriched and deepened my faith. I understand that for others, different routes bring them deeper into relationship with God (and I am not saying that science is the only route by any means), but it might lessen some of the anxiety over science if it was widely accepted that science CAN be a route for some people to get closer to God. For example, it shifts the question from "How can we help our young people maintain their Christian faith in a secular scientific world?" to "How can we help our young people find God throughout the science that surrounds them, whether or not that science perceives itself as secular?"
3. Your father was both a minister and passionate about science. Why do you think it’s important for young Christians to have positive interactions with science?
Because science defines so much of the world we live in. Because science is an exciting activity and (I truly believe) accessible to all! Because God created this universe and (I fully believe) intends for us to explore it. Because God gave us brains for a reason, and even if that reason for you is more closely aligned with art or music or history or healing or peace-making or anything else, you still have something significant to enjoy that comes from science, and you have something important to contribute to the wise and Godly pursuit of new science.
4. Do you have any advice for Christians who are struggling to harmonize their faith with science?
Perhaps simply this: if I am in any way correct that Truth is much bigger than any one of us can understand, then the place where you find harmony will likely look different from mine, and that's just the way it should be! I am confident that God will help you find the harmony you seek, because God has promised us that true-hearted searches for God will be rewarded. When the harmony starts to emerge, let it surprise you and look different from anything you've read or heard about. And when you find this happening, please do share it with me and with others to broaden our hearts and minds!
5. And do you have any advice for Christians who want to share their passion for science with fellow Christians?
Simply an encouragement to do it with grace, with love, and with passion! Start a reading group at your church and read a popular science book, offer a talk on the part (or parts) of science that have caught your passion. If you yourself are not a scientist, or if you wish for "backup", then ask around at your local college or university for professors within the science departments who are Christians and then invite them to come and talk at your church. Contrary to popular mythology, Christians can be found in every academic department that I have ever encountered. Oh, and recognize that you are probably advancing God's plan for the scientist by reaching out (a chance invite was exactly how I found St. Bartholemew's, which has since been feeding me spiritually for 7 years!)
I am frequently humbled to discover how many diverse Christians are fed in some way or another by me taking time to explain not so much the little bits of science that I find interesting, but the fundamentals that I take for granted. In a university it is easy to assume that Biology 101 is common knowledge, when that is very far from the truth. The basics of physics, chemistry, biology, and mathematics that form the foundation of your world might be the most empowering things to offer to a church youth group (or retirees group, or any other group for that matter), setting others free to now start their own explorations of the books, documentaries, and web articles where God is waiting to meet them through insights into the natural world.