Science and The Truth Project

Dorothy Boorse
On November 05, 2013

The Truth Project is a multi-DVD lecture series put out by Focus on the Family that addresses a number of aspects of modern life and thinking from a Christian worldview. Because I am both a scientist and an evangelical Christian, and because I have been closely following the cultural discussion on evolution for years, I was asked by a colleague to write a brief review of one of the parts of the project, Lesson Five, called “Science: What is True?”

The web site for the project describes Lesson Five this way:

Lesson Five – Science: What is True?
Science, the “systematic study of the natural world,” brings to light innumerable evidences of Intelligent Design. But Darwinian theory transforms science from the honest investigation of nature into a vehicle for propagating a godless philosophy. (Part One)

A careful examination of molecular biology and the fossil record demonstrates that evolution is not a “proven fact.” Meanwhile, history shows that ideas, including Darwinism as a social philosophy, have definite consequences – consequences that can turn ugly when God is left out of the picture. (Part Two)

Both sub parts of Lesson Five – Science: What is True? are videos of lectures given by Del Tackett, a senior administrator at Focus on the Family. The lectures include a PowerPoint presentation with a series of quotes from famous people and film clips. The clips include bits of television shows, interviews with a variety of people, animations, and a montage of images and voices.

Part One begins with a reading of part of Psalm 119, “The heavens declare the glory of God.” Tackett then asks the central question, ”Why is there something rather than nothing?” The answer to this, he says, is because of a creator. As we look at the natural world, we should be able to see evidence of a creator because of patterns and design.

Tackett contrasts this view with the views of several renowned scientific naturalists, particularly Carl Sagan and Richard Dawkins. He differentiates between science and philosophy, two ways of getting at truth, which should complement each other.

He says that science consists of truth claims about particulars, while philosophy addresses truth claims about ultimate reality such as, “Where do we come from?,” “Why are we here?,” or “What is the meaning of life?” Tackett quotes a number of scientists claiming that evolution is a “fact” and instead says that it is only a “theory.”

Tackett goes on to explain that he will focus on evolution because it is one of the primary reasons people believe there is no God. Tackett declares that people who accept evolution will not accept any of the evidence that might lead to belief in a creator. The world around us is like a box. As we look into the box, evidence of design becomes plain. We know that the world is designed simply by looking at it. Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection is contrasted with William Paley’s watchmaker analogy (described in his book, Natural Theology), as the “argument from design” (Paley 1802).

Part Two of Lesson Five – Science: What is True? picks up where Part One stopped. All around us we see complexity and design. Kepler, a famous seventeenth century scientist and Christian, had been quoted in part one and is referred to again. “The chief aim of all investigations of the external world should be to discover the rational order and harmony which has been imposed on it by God and which He revealed to us in the language of mathematics.” (The part in italics not used in the lecture) (Kepler 1601).

Much of Part Two is a response to two quotes, one from Carl Sagan and one from Charles Darwin. Sagan said, “Evolution is a fact amply demonstrated by the fossil record and molecular biology” (1977). Darwin said, “If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed, which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down” (1858).

Tackett uses Sagan’s two main lines of evidence, molecular biology and the fossil record, to give several examples of systems that he believes are too complex to have evolved, such as the clotting system of human blood, the eye, a peacock feather, and a bacterial flagellum. He features a number of interviews with scientists and computer animations that illustrate the complexity of such features. In the area of the fossil record, Tackett disputes Archaeopteryx as an example of a transitional form and the variety of Galapagos finch characteristics as an example of evolution. Finally, Tackett repeats his assertion that Intelligent Design and evolution are opposing worldviews. Evolution, he contends, is a lie that makes people believe that, “scientific evidence allows me to reject worldview of God.” While Tackett claims that Darwinism is opposed to God, he does not actually connect the lecture to the description on the web that claims that “Darwinism as a social philosophy” has consequences that “turn ugly when God is out of the picture.”

There are some laudable moments in Lesson Five – Science: What is True? Tackett is very clear that the scriptures and the natural world are valuable to understanding truth. He differentiates between philosophy and science. He is entirely correct that some prominent scientists are atheists, and are outspokenly opposed to religion. In one of the clearest moments in the second lecture, Tackett describes the distress of Christians who are, “belittled and made to feel foolish” because of their beliefs. Tackett is right that some scientists overstep the bounds of science and make philosophic claims.

Furthermore, the concept of Intelligent Design in its broadest form is worthier of attention than some parts of the scientific community give it credit for. It is an attempt to ask the question, “If there were sources of truth outside of natural laws, or causes outside of natural laws, would we be able to identify them or learn anything about them using scientific methods?” Many people answer “no” while ID proponents answer “yes.” Either way, the question, “Could we see evidence of design and would we recognize it if it occurred?” is a reasonable one for philosophers to ask. Finally, the film is warm and accessible. Tackett has a friendly tone, and uses a range of slides, film clips, and demonstrations to illustrate his points.

Overall, though, I was disappointed by the lectures. They had a chance to answer the question, “How do top scientists who are believers form a whole, coherent world view?” They could have looked at scientists from many disciplines and could have included a range of ways biologists deal with modern evolutionary theory. Instead, the lectures repeat an oversimplification of the relationship between science and faith and promote a false dichotomy. These concerns deserve longer discussion than the brief overview I can give them here, but the main issues are that Tackett uses only the most extreme voices, uses poor or inconsistent definitions for words, makes errors about the science, and fails to provide a legitimate alternative.

Tackett rightly claims that some scientists, including Richard Dawkins, are opposed to the idea of God, and view evolution as a “fact” that in some way allows us to disbelieve God. However, since Tackett strongly disagrees with these scientists about a number of key points, it is unfortunate that he then turns to them to define evolution and describe a worldview based on it. When he does so, Tackett commits the same error he accuses these scientists of doing; he confuses science and philosophy. Unfortunately, throughout both lectures, Tackett uses the term “evolution” to mean, “a worldview that denies God.” This definition is poor. Tackett should have used “evolution” for “a natural process resulting from selection pressures acting on genetic variability” or any one of several similar definitions. In contrast, a worldview that denies God should have been defined as “scientific naturalism,” “materialism,” or “evolutionism.” The distinction is an important one. Because evolution is a process bounded by natural laws, it makes no philosophic claims whatsoever, no more than precipitation or evaporation do.

Likewise, a better lecture, while still disputing the claims of Sagan, Dawkins, Asimov and others that evolution is a “fact,” it would have approached the dispute differently. The problem is not that evolution isn’t well supported by science; because the problem is that evolutionary theory is a large conceptual model used to explain myriad “facts,” which are measurable bits of information. A theory is not a “not-yet-proven-fact.” A theory explains facts. This problem with vocabulary is typical of the rancorous debates over evolution and is described by Frey (1986) and Miller (2000).

Tackett’s lectures on science create a false dichotomy between worldviews by not reflecting the actual range of beliefs in the Christian scientific community. On the scientific and philosophic level, there are many scholars with intermediate positions, which are entirely ignored in this film. For example, molecular biologist Kenneth Miller has written a book strongly critical of the science included in Michael Behe’s Intelligent Design book, Darwin’s Black Box (Behe 1996). Miller is a Christian who believes evolution and faith are compatible. Howard Van Till has an interesting alternative view that God created what he calls “a fully gifted universe.” Paleontologist Keith Miller at Kansas State, also a Christian, is one who believes the fossil record does support the theory of evolution. In addition, Stephen Barr’s essay, “The Design of Evolution” is an attempt to diffuse tension between Christian faith and evolutionary theory (Barr 2005). Richard Wright, author of the much-used Christian college text, Biology through the Eyes of Faith (2003), and Darrel Falk, author of the very accessible book, Coming to Peace with Science (2004), would also have been great additions to Tackett’s conversation.

The most noticeable omission to Lesson Five- Science: What is True? is the voice of Francis Collins, former director of the Human Genome Project (now head of the NIH) and a proponent of theistic evolution (Collins 2006). Collins is an outspoken evangelical Christian and explains his own conversion to Christ and the reasons he believes in God in the book, The Language of God: a scientist presents evidence for belief (Collins 2006). He specifically refers to an intelligent creator and particularly sees God’s handiwork in the Big Bang and in the possibility of miracles. This is such an unusual thing for a prominent scientist to write about that Collins has opened a great deal of public discussion on science and faith. At one point, he debated Richard Dawkins in an interview read by millions in Time magazine (Van Biema 2006). If Tackett’s view of the world is correct, however, Collins is on the same side of the discussion as all of the atheists—an assertion Collins roundly denies.

I also would have liked see in Tackett’s treatment some reference to scientists who may not be Christians but who disagree with the strong dichotomy represented by Sagan and Dawkins. Michael Ruse, for example, a prominent writer on evolution and creationism, makes the case that there is no reason an evolutionist could not also hold traditional Christian beliefs (Ruse 2004).

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.

Dorothy Boorse
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.