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Dennis Venema
 on January 07, 2011

A Tale of Three Creationists

Todd Wood is an unusual Young-Earth creationist: He is a credentialed scientist who believes that evolution is a successful scientific theory (even if he disagrees with it).

Three finches perched on twig Schallmeiner

As a faculty member at an evangelical Christian university, I have the privilege of interacting with colleagues from all over North America. Shortly after becoming acquainted with one colleague, I realized that we have a lot in common. For starters, we’re both believers, and we both teach at Christian institutions. We also have very similar research backgrounds in biology: genetics, cell biology, genomics, that sort of thing, although my colleague has done more work directly relevant to evolutionary biology. We have both written articles on human/chimpanzee comparative genomics intended to inform believers of the challenge this new field of study presents for traditional interpretations of Genesis, and both of us have been criticized by other believers for doing so. Both of us feel that evolution is a robust scientific theory with a huge body of supporting evidence. Both of us have written critiques of folks in the Intelligent Design movement, as well as organizations like Reasons to Believe.

In fact, I can think of only one major difference between us: my colleague is a Young Earth Creationist, whereas I am an Evolutionary Creationist. His name is Todd Wood. Todd has fascinated me right from when I first became aware of him in 2007. He is probably best known for his very controversial stance (for a Young Earth Creationist) on the evidence for evolution. In Todd’s own words, evolution is solid science:

Evolution is not a theory in crisis. It is not teetering on the verge of collapse. It has not failed as a scientific explanation. There is evidence for evolution, gobs and gobs of it. It is not just speculation or a faith choice or an assumption or a religion. It is a productive framework for lots of biological research, and it has amazing explanatory power. There is no conspiracy to hide the truth about the failure of evolution. There has really been no failure of evolution as a scientific theory. It works, and it works well. (Emphasis in the original, which is found here.)

Not surprisingly, this stance attracted a lot of attention, both from believers and non-believers. Todd spent several weeks thereafter on his blog discussing his views and responding to his readers (see herehere and here). Along the way, he felt the need to clarify his Young Earth Creationist views, as apparently some folks doubted his sincerity:

I’ve begun to notice a strange undercurrent of folks proposing that I’m not really a young earth creationist. One especially amusing person suggested that I was stupid, possibly bipolar, or just a liar…Lest my creationist credentials be doubted, let me be blunt: I believe that God created everything that you see in six consecutive days around 6000 years ago. I believe that Adam and Eve were the very first humans and were directly created by God…(Entire text may be found here)

Todd goes on to list several more points to establish his fidelity to Young Earth Creationism beyond question.

So, what to make of this? How can Todd, committed as he is to a Young Earth view of creation, accept that evolution is valid science? Or, to put the shoe on the other foot, how can Todd, a trained scientist, hold to a model of the cosmos that contravenes so much well-established science?

The answer to the second question is relatively straightforward. Todd holds to Young Earth Creationism because he feels it is what Scripture teaches. In his own words, he rejects evolution by faith:

Creationist students, listen to me very carefully: There is evidence for evolution, and evolution is an extremely successful scientific theory. That doesn’t make it ultimately true, and it doesn’t mean that there could not possibly be viable alternatives. It is my own faith choice to reject evolution, because I believe the Bible reveals true information about the history of the earth that is fundamentally incompatible with evolution. I am motivated to understand God’s creation from what I believe to be a biblical, creationist perspective. Evolution itself is not flawed or without evidence. Please don’t be duped into thinking that somehow evolution itself is a failure. Please don’t idolize your own ability to reason. Faith is enough. If God said it, that should settle it. Maybe that’s not enough for your scoffing professor or your non-Christian friends, but it should be enough for you. (Emphasis in the original)

Thus for Todd, a faithful reading of Scripture disallows accepting that evolution is true, even if evolution is a successful scientific theory.

The first question, as to why Todd accepts the scientific evidence for evolution, is also relatively straightforward: he’s done his homework. In 2006, Todd published a very thorough paper discussing the then-recent comparison of the completed chimpanzee genome with the human genome. If you haven’t read this paper before, I highly recommend it. Todd is clear in this paper that “common design” – the idea that the similarities we see in nature are not due to common ancestry but rather to independent special creation events by the same designer – is not a viable scientific explanation for the overall pattern of biological similarity that we observe when comparing genomes:

A very popular argument is that similarity does not necessarily indicate common ancestry but could also imply common design…While this is true, the mere fact of similarity is only a small part of the evolutionary argument. Far more important than the mere occurrence of similarity is the kind of similarity observed. Similarity is not random. Rather, it forms a detectable pattern with some groups of species more similar than others. As an example consider a 200,000 nucleotide region from human chromosome 1. When compared to the chimpanzee, the two species differ by as little as 1-2%, but when compared to the mouse, the differences are much greater. Comparison to chicken reveals even greater differences. This is exactly the expected pattern of similarity that would result if humans and chimpanzees shared a recent common ancestor and mice and chickens were more distantly related. The question is not how similarity arose but why this particular pattern of similarity arose. To say that God could have created the pattern is merely ad hoc.

In this paper Todd sorts through several other Young Earth Creationist models, but ultimately finds them wanting as well. Further, his views have not changed in the last few years. However, in a recent blog where Todd reviewed one of my papers, he remains hopeful that a satisfactory Young Earth Creationism explanation will eventually be found:

Since that paper, my assessment of the issue has not changed, and despite my explanation that common design is (to borrow a phrase from Venema’s paper) “enormously strained and severely ad hoc,” creationists continue to pretend that common design explains homology. Nevertheless, I remain confident that a satisfactory creationist explanation will be found. Naive? Maybe.

And so Todd remains one of the more interesting individuals in the evangelical Christian discourse on whether God uses evolutionary means in His creation. One thing I have come to appreciate about Todd (aside from his intellectual honesty) is that he is an excellent person to compare notes with. While I am personally convinced that evolution is one of the means God employs as a creative mechanism, I find it helpful to get Todd’s take on new developments in our field. I can be sure that Todd won’t be blinded by some sort of “evolutionary bias” and give shoddy science a free pass (not that I would knowingly do so either, but we all have our blind spots). As I once commented after a lecture to a student who held to a Young Earth view, I had only discussed science that a highly-qualified Young Earth scientist (Todd) accepted.

Given Todd’s expertise in these areas, I have also come to appreciate his views on various creationist positions (Young Earth, Old Earth, or Evolutionary).

Since his pivotal 2006 paper, Todd has continued to evaluate and respond to arguments against human common ancestry brought forth by other creationists. One group that is frequently the target of Todd’s criticism is the Old-Earth Creationist group Reasons to Believe, (RTB) a group that I have recently critiqued as well (see here). The striking genetic similarities between humans and chimpanzees presents a difficulty for the RTB view that humans were directly created by God apart from common ancestry with other species. One RTB rationalization for the evidence is that since humans and other life are formed from the dust of the ground in the Genesis narratives, such similarities are to be expected:

Genesis 2:7 describes the creation of Adam and states that God “formed the man from the dust of the ground.” The verb “formed” is translated from the original Hebrew verb yasar, which means “to form,” “to fashion,” or “to produce.” Genesis 2:19 uses yasar to describe God’s work to form “out of the ground all the beasts of the field and all the birds of the air.” Together, these verses indicate that both man and animals were fashioned by the Creator from the same substance. It follows, then, that anatomical, physiological, biochemical, and genetic similarities should exist between humans and other animals, including the “99% genetic similarity” between humans and chimpanzees.

While RTB views this as a reasonable line of argument, Todd does not. The fatal flaw, as both Todd and I see it, is that this rationalization does not explain the pattern of biological similarity we see in nature:

Being created by one God would be a good reason for some degree of similarity to exist. Likewise, being created to occupy the same world or to participate in the same ecosystem would also necessitate some biological similarity. These types of considerations could explain why all living things use the same basic biochemical building blocks (amino acids, nucleotides, etc.), for example.

What these considerations do not explain is the pattern of similarity. This is quite a different problem that is easy to confuse with the fact of similarity. What we’re dealing with in creation is not just bare similarity or random similarity. There is a definite pattern, and it’s a pattern that Darwin says is uniquely explained by the inference of common ancestry …

When are building materials sufficient to justify a conclusion that things built will be strongly similar in form? If I get two homework assignments that are identical word-for-word, I do not conclude that the similarity is inevitable given that they’re both written in English.

In other words, RTB is content to present a weak argument they feel is theologically satisfying even if it fails to grapple with the compelling pattern that scientists observe throughout nature. Todd, however, isn’t having any of it. He would rather understand the pattern than find ways to explain it away.

Given my appreciation for Todd and his approach, I was pleased to discover Todd’s blog series examining my recent critiques (see here) of Reasons to Believe’s “Testable Creation Model”. I found several aspects of RTB’s response to be inadequate, as I will explain below. Still, when one is personally invested in a discussion it can be difficult to evaluate a rebuttal objectively. Far better to have another, more impartial individual look it over and offer their thoughts. Todd is an ideal candidate for this. He is eminently qualified to evaluate the science, he is familiar with the RTB literature, and, since he is a Young-Earth Creationist, he certainly cannot be accused of a pro-evolutionary bias.

Todd starts the series by explaining his motivations:

In my last post before Christmas, I indicated that I would be discussing Reasons to Believe in my next posts. Unfortunately, what started as a single response to some of Fuz Rana’s recent assertions about the chimpanzee genome has turned into a long series of posts. Having written almost the entire series of posts already, I’ve become discouraged by the length and detail of my criticisms. I have even debated whether or not I should bother posting what I’ve written, since I’m sure it will be either ignored by RTB or misconstrued as personal attack or insult. Despite that, though, I do think I have a duty to the public and to the truth to set the record straight on a topic that I’m familiar with: comparative primate genomics.

In his first post, Todd addressed the accusation that my critique was merely an ad hominem attack on RTB. In my critique, I was careful not to accuse RTB of wrongdoing. That is certainly one possible explanation for the data I laid out in the original critique, but it is not the only explanation. My intent was to make the data accessible to non-specialists and allow them to see what a biologist sees when they look at the RTB model. So, I found this response from RTB to be somewhat puzzling. Todd’s evaluation was similar to mine:

In his first response to Venema’s post, Rana wrote,

…instead of discussing the scientific weaknesses of our approach, Venema chose to launch an ad hominem attack against me and Hugh Ross, impugning our integrity as scientists and scholars.

I think that interpretation is pretty debatable. Venema raised some very important questions … about the way RTB has represented published research. He never accused anyone at RTB of any specific wrongdoing or incompetence. By dismissing these issues as just a personal “attack,” I would say that Rana is far more guilty of argumentum ad hominem than Venema ever was.

An additional point is that critiquing a model for failing to adequately address the scientific literature is very much a scientific critique. If I submit a scientific paper for publication that makes claims clearly against the published literature, while simultaneously omitting any discussion of the relevant research, the reviewers would, without a doubt, reject my work. That’s not an ad hominem attack on their part, it’s pointing out a scientific weakness in my scholarship. The RTB model, as published in their major books, makes no mention of the key paper comparing the human and chimpanzee genomes. The most recent RTB book, More Than a Theory, even claims that a full-genome comparison has never been done. Moreover, no explanation or evidence is given to back up these assertions. Regardless of the reasons for these omissions, the fact remains that they are a serious scientific shortcoming for the RTB model.

Todd’s thorough analysis eventually spanned eight posts on his blog, and links to each post are provided below for those interested in the details. Having gone over RTB’s response with a fine-toothed comb, Todd offers some conclusions for RTB to consider:

Venema and I have documented a sad but consistent and ongoing pattern of erroneous summaries of published works on the part of RTB (Rana and Ross, but mostly Rana). There’s really no way to deny these mistakes have been made or to explain them away, so what are you going to do about them? I recommend apologizing for the mistakes, correcting them if you can, and instituting some kind of serious fact-checking filter on everything you publish.

Todd goes on to challenge RTB to live up to their stated invitation for serious critique of their model:

Rana claimed that “We do invite serious critique of our model (both theological and scientific). We believe that critical evaluation of our ideas will only improve our case for biblical creation.” Fine. Venema did that in his critique. You ignored a number of important points he raised and instead mischaracterized his critique as a personal attack, which it was not. I’ve also offered a serious critique in the fourth post of this series, where I tested Rana’s hypothesis that the unaligned portions of the chimp genome are too different to align. Will you ignore that as well? If so, please stop saying that you “invite serious critique” of the RTB model.

I’m hopeful that RTB won’t ignore what Todd has to say. Todd’s blog might not get a huge amount of traffic, but he is an important voice in this discussion. Hopefully posting this here on Biologos will raise Todd’s visibility with those who need to hear what he has to say most: RTB supporters. Folks, when two Christian geneticists who hold radically different views of creation agree that the RTB model has serious scientific flaws, it’s time to ask hard questions.

Todd’s complete blog series can be found here (Parts 12345678)

About the author

Dennis Venema

Dennis Venema

Dennis Venema is professor of biology at Trinity Western University in Langley, British Columbia. He holds a B.Sc. (with Honors) from the University of British Columbia (1996), and received his Ph.D. from the University of British Columbia in 2003. His research is focused on the genetics of pattern formation and signaling using the common fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster as a model organism. Dennis is a gifted thinker and writer on matters of science and faith, but also an award-winning biology teacher—he won the 2008 College Biology Teaching Award from the National Association of Biology Teachers. He and his family enjoy numerous outdoor activities that the Canadian Pacific coast region has to offer.