Ham on Nye: Our Take

| By Emily Ruppel and Deborah Haarsma and Chris Stump and John Walton and Dennis Venema and Ted Davis

Those who follow the activities of BioLogos—including seekers, scholars, scientists, and pastors—probably won’t be surprised that we haven’t been too optimistic about the potential consequences of yesterday’s debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham. As scientists and science aficionados, we’ve been concerned that the rhetoric employed by Ham would seem to undercut the validity of evolutionary theory for those without a strong grasp on the body of evidence supporting it. As Christians, we’ve worried that our faith will be presented to the world as a tree with only one branch, rather than a rich community of believers with diverse views on origins and God’s ongoing relationship to creation.

But perhaps even more distressingly, we’ve anticipated that one of the lasting effects of this debate will be to further alienate Christianity from science in the public consciousness. As BioLogos president Deb Haarsma wrote recently, constant struggle, argumentation, and debate about worldviews is not the only way to view the relationship between science and faith!

So who won? How did it go?

Of course, we at BioLogos agreed with both debaters at various times throughout the debate and were pleased to note an atmosphere of (mostly) civility and courtesy between both parties. It’s impossible to encapsulate two and a half hours of intense conversation in a single blog post—and only time will tell what effect this event will have on the public conversation on creation and evolution. We anticipate much commentary in news and blog outlets in the coming days regarding who “won” the debate and what was said by both debaters.

Since we are more concerned with how this event will affect the acceptance of evolution in the evangelical community and the accurate representation of what a Bible-believing Christian looks like to the general public, our response to the debate is not a blow-by-blow of the arguments made but rather a series of “big picture” reflections by BioLogos scholars.

Jim Stump photoFrom Jim Stump, Content Manager:

The question of the debate was whether creation is a viable model for explaining origins. Not surprisingly, they disagreed. Perhaps part of the reason for that was that the question was not specific enough: Viable for what? Viable for whom? Young Earth Creationism is certainly viable for millions of Christians. It’s not viable for millions of other Christians. From both sides we heard a lot about what is reasonable and what is unreasonable. But “reasonable” like “viable” is a relational term. Individual claims like the age of the earth or the reality of miracles seem reasonable or unreasonable only against a backdrop of other beliefs. If Ham’s interpretation of the Bible is accepted, then it isn’t reasonable to think the universe is billions of years old. So no amount of evidence about the age of the universe will convince him otherwise. The argument instead needs to focus on his interpretation of Scripture before he’ll even consider the science. If Nye’s naturalism is accepted, then it isn’t reasonable to think that God has any role in the world today. So no amount of quoting Bible verses to him will be effective. Perhaps his concerns about suffering and Christian exclusivism need to be addressed before he’ll even consider a Christian view of creation.

At BioLogos we are not just seeking to defend what seems reasonable to us, but we’re seeking truth from Scripture and from the natural world to form a coherent picture of God’s action in the world.

Ted Davis photoFrom Ted Davis, Fellow for the History of Science:

A central point of the debate was whether the historical sciences are actually “sciences” in the legitimate sense, or somehow distinct from observational and experimental sciences. Are a young earth and old earth equally valid views? These issues were addressed in my 2012 online course “Science and the Bible”, which gave an overview of several “viable models” held by Christians about origins. Particularly relevant are the discussions of the development of the young earth creationism movement and of the principle of accommodation for interpreting Genesis 1.

John Walton photoFrom John Walton, BioLogos advisor:

In general I appreciated the cordial and respectful tone that both debaters evidenced. Most of the debate was about scientific evidence, which I am not the one to address. The only comment that I want to make in that regard is that it was evident that Ken Ham believed that all evolutionists were naturalists—an identification that those associated with BioLogos would strongly contest.

But both speakers also showed assumptions about the Bible that provide opportunity for analysis. Bill Nye repeatedly returned to the idea that the Bible was a book translated over and over again over thousands of years. In his opinion this results in a product that could be no more trusted than the end result in the game of telephone. In this opinion he shows his lack of clear understanding of the whole process of the transmission of texts and the textual basis for today’s translations. The point he should have been making is that any translation is an interpretation. That is the point on which to contest Ken Ham’s “natural” readings of Scripture. We cannot base the details of our interpretations on translated (and therefore interpreted) text. We have to interact with a Hebrew text, not an English one. Nye also tried to drive a wedge between Old Testament and New Testament—a non-productive direction. The point he was trying to get at, but never fully exploited was how dependent Ham’s position was on interpretation.

I commend Ken Ham’s frequent assertion of the gospel message. His testimony to his faith was admirable and of course, I agree with it. I also share his beliefs about the nature of the Bible, but I do not share his interpretation of the Bible on numerous key points. From the opening remarks Ham proclaimed that his position was based on the biblical account of origins. But he is intent on reading that account as if it were addressing science (he truly believes it is). I counter by saying that we cannot have a confident understanding of what the Bible claims until we read it as an ancient document. I believe as he does that the Bible was given by God, but it was given through human instruments into an ancient culture and language. We can only encounter the Bible’s claims by taking account of that context.

One place where this distinction was obvious was that Ham tried to make the statement in Genesis that God created each animal “after its kind” as a technical statement that matched our modern scientific categories. We cannot assume that the same categories were used in the ancient world as are used today (genus, family, species, etc.). Such anachronism does not take the Bible seriously as what it “naturally” says. In the Bible this only means that when a grain of wheat drops, a grain of wheat grows (not a flower); when a horse gives birth, it gives birth to a horse, not a coyote.

The fact is that Ken Ham rejects scientific findings because he believes the Bible offers claims that contradict science. He believes that he can add up the genealogies to arrive at the need for a young earth. He never stops to ask whether it is “natural” to read ancient genealogies in that way. In the ancient world genealogies serve a very different function than they do today, and numbers may well have rhetorical rather than strictly numerical value. He believes that there could be no death before the fall because he has interpreted the word “good” as if it meant “perfect.” That is not what the Hebrew term means. Furthermore, if there was no death before the fall, people would have little use for a tree of life. What is a “natural” interpretation—our sense of what it means or the sense that an ancient reader would have had? Ham actually made the statement that we have to read the Bible “according to the type of literature” that it is. Yet it was clear that he has done no research on ancient genres and how parts of the Bible should be identified by the standards of ancient genres (after all, our genre categories are bound to carry some anachronism and therefore cannot be applied directly). Reading the Bible “naturally” cannot be approached as casually as Ham suggests.

When Ham was asked what it would take to change his mind, he was lost for words because he said that he could never stop believing in the truth of the Bible. I would echo that sentiment, but it never seemed to occur to him that there might be equally valid interpretations of the early chapters of Genesis, or maybe even ones that could garner stronger support. He stated that no one can prove the age of the earth, but he believes that the Bible tells us the age of the earth. Nevertheless, it is only his highly debatable interpretation of the Bible that tells him the age of the earth. What if the Bible makes no such claim? There are biblical scholars who take the Bible every bit as seriously as he does, who disagree that the Bible makes a claim about the age of the earth.

In the end, then, while Ham kept challenging Nye about whether he was there to see this history that he claimed, Nye should have been challenging Ham about what makes him so certain that the Bible is making the claims that he thinks it is. What appears to Ham as a “natural” reading, is extremely debatable if one attempts to read the text of Genesis as the (God-inspired) ancient document that it is.

Dennis Venema photoFrom Dennis Venema, Fellow of Biology:

I was surprised that Nye did not delve into genetics– I was hoping for a good discussion of genomic comparisons between humans and other species, for example. Modern comparative genomics is one very strong line of evidence for evolution in general, and human evolution in particular – and one that I have written about extensively on the BioLogos Forum. So, from my perspective it would have been nice to see Nye press Ham with this evidence. For example, why do humans, as placental mammals, have the defective, fragmentary remains of gene for making egg yolk in our genome exactly where one would predict it to be based on examining the genomes of egg-laying organisms? Why is it that we share many mutations in this defective gene with other placental mammals, to say nothing of the many other defective genes with the same pattern of shared mutations? Did the exact same mutations happen over and over again in many distinct species (species that even Ham would agree are separate “kinds”) or did those mutations happen once and then were inherited by species that later went their separate ways? This line of evidence could have been brought to bear to show how compelling the case for human evolution is when looking at our genome and further highlight, as Nye did, that evolutionary biology is a predictive science – a theory in the scientific sense. This would have also shown that Ham’s position – that of independently created “kinds” of organisms – has no support at all from a comparative genomics perspective. As such, it’s not surprising that Ham didn’t bring it up, but I expected Nye to do so, and to argue it forcefully.

The only discussion of genetics was a brief mention of the work of Richard Lenski, a microbiologist who has been performing a decades-long experiment on the evolution of bacteria (E. coli) in his laboratory. One key result of the Lenski experiment was to catch an evolutionary innovation “in the act” and then tease out the many genetic changes that were required for it. Specifically, Lenski and his colleagues documented the basis for the bacteria to acquire a new function – the ability to utilize the compound citrate as a carbon source in the presence of oxygen. The genetic details of how this new function arose are complex and fascinating, and certainly not the simple case, as Ken Ham claimed, that “nothing new” had arisen and that it was merely the case that “a gene that was previously present was suddenly switched on”. Indeed, this is a well-documented case of a new function, with new genetic information, arising through evolutionary mechanisms – and one that I have written about extensively for those interested in this fascinating story.

Despite these particulars, overall I had the general feeling what is really needed for the conversation on evolution among brothers and sisters in Christ is twofold. First and foremost, evangelicals need a deeper understanding of the Bible, especially the Ancient Near Eastern context and setting of the original audience of Genesis (for which I am glad for the work of others with expertise in that area, such as my colleague John Walton). Secondly, evangelicals need a deeper understanding of how science works in general, and specifically how the lines of evidence for evolution converge on a robust picture of how God used this means to bring about biodiversity on earth. While I am of little help with the first point, the second is the goal of the Evolution Basics series I have been writing for the last year. This series is intended to bring the average layperson “up to speed” on evolution – a resource that I hope will be useful for many who watched the debate and came away with questions.

Deb Haarsma photoFrom Deb Haarsma, President of BioLogos:

While the debate pitted two extreme positions against one another, I was glad to hear references to other options. Bill Nye repeatedly pointed out that many religious people, including Christians, accept the evidence for evolution and the age of the earth. Nye even mentioned our founder, Francis Collins! Ken Ham pointed out that the scientific method grew out of the Christian context of medieval Europe and that the faith is in harmony with the process of science. He even shared a love of technology with Nye! But several times we here at the office groaned in frustration, like when Ken Ham made false scientific arguments or Bill Nye turned to science to answer questions of meaning and purpose. When Ken Ham was asked something like “If science were to show conclusively that the earth was older than 10,000 years, would you still believe in the historical Jesus?” I wished he would have simply said “yes.” Our belief in the Bible and Jesus is more fundamental than our views on science. When Bill Nye referred to religion as a source of social connection and comfort for millions, I wished that he had a deeper understanding of what Christianity is all about. Our faith is much more than a social club; it’s about absolute truth and salvation from sin through Jesus Christ. The highlight of the night for me? Seeing people discover the resources at BioLogos from our tweets during the debate.


About the Authors

Emily Ruppel

Emily Ruppel Emily Ruppel is a doctoral student in rhetoric of science at the University of Pittsburgh. Prior to her PhD work, she studied poetry at Bellarmine University in Louisville and science writing at MIT. She has also served as blog editor for The BioLogos Foundation and as Associate Director of Communications for the American Scientific Affiliation.

Deborah Haarsma

Deborah Haarsma serves as the President of BioLogos, a position she has held since January 2013. Previously, she served as professor and chair in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Gifted in interpreting complex scientific topics for lay audiences, Dr. Haarsma often speaks to churches, colleges, and schools about the relationships between science and Christian faith. She is author (along with her husband Loren Haarsma) of Origins: Christian Perspectives on Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design (2011, 2007), a book presenting the agreements and disagreements of Christians regarding the history of life and the universe. Haarsma is an experienced research scientist, with several publications in the Astrophysical Journal and the Astronomical Journal on extragalactic astronomy and cosmology.

Chris Stump

Chris Stump has worked in content development for BioLogos since August 2013. As part of the staff, she collects and helps to develop resources that will be useful for churches, schools, students, and homeschooling families. Chris has taught at the elementary, high school, and college level. She has a bachelor’s degree in math education from Indiana State University and a Master’s degree from Indiana University.

John Walton

John Walton is a professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College in Illinois and an editor and writer of Old Testament comparative studies and commentaries. Throughout his research, Walton has focused his attention on comparing the culture and literature of the Bible and the ancient Near East. He has published dozens of books, articles and translations, both as writer and editor, including his latest book The Lost World of Genesis One.

Dennis Venema

Dennis Venema is professor of biology at Trinity Western University in Langley, British Columbia and Fellow of Biology for BioLogos. 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. 

Ted Davis

Ted Davis is Fellow of the History of Science for the BioLogos Foundation and Professor of the History of Science at Messiah College. A former high school science teacher, Ted studied history and philosophy of science at Indiana University, where his mentor was the late Richard S. Westfall, author of the definitive biography of Isaac Newton. With the English historian Michael Hunter, Ted edited The Works of Robert Boyle, 14 vols. (London: Pickering & Chatto, 1999-2000), but his interests include the whole 2000-year interaction of Christianity and science. Author of dozens of scholarly articles and essays, Ted is one of few historians who have written extensively about both the Scientific Revolution and modern America. He and his wife Kathy enjoy theater, music, and traveling to new places.


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