Ryan Bebej

From Young-Earth Creationist to Whale Evolution Expert: My Story

I am a professor of biology at Calvin College. My scholarly research focuses on paleontology, especially regarding the evolution of whales. If you had told my 18-year-old self that I would end up in this career, there is absolutely no way I would have believed you.

My journey began in a small town in north central Illinois. My four siblings and I were raised in a wonderful Christian home by parents who were amazing examples of what it means to follow Jesus. We were active members at our church, and faith was a central part of our lives. Looking back, I don’t really recall issues like evolution being discussed much at home or preached from the pulpit at church. But somehow I developed the perspective that the universe was young, modern science was wrong, and that was that. I distinctly remember this perspective being semi-affirmed in (of all places) my public high school biology class, where we were told that we had to learn evolution for the test but that we didn’t have to believe any of it. So I learned what I had to and promptly forgot about it.

I first began to think critically about science and faith when I became a student at Calvin College. I encountered the details of evolutionary theory in an animal biology class during the spring of my freshman year, and in a moment of honest self-reflection, I realized that I didn’t really know much about this science that I thought was totally false. So I opened myself up to learning about these scientific principles, and quite frankly, I was a bit alarmed.

There was a lot of evidence for evolution and common descent that I had never considered, and the basics of things like evolutionary population genetics made all the sense in the world. I found myself intrigued by the science and wanted to learn more, but I was especially interested in trying to figure out whether or not this science could fit with my faith. There was a large part of me that feared I was at the edge of a slippery slope that would inevitably lead me to agnosticism or atheism.

The following year, I met two individuals who would become some of my most important mentors and dearest friends: Ralph Stearley and Dave Warners. Ralph is a paleontologist who was teaching my introductory geology class. Dave is a botanist who was leading my plant biology class. I had a wonderful fall semester in their courses and had conversations with both of them about evolution and what it might mean for my faith. But I still had a lot of unanswered questions, and I was thrilled when they told me that, together, they were co-teaching a three-week course that January called “Evolution, Creation, and Human Responsibility.”

This course changed my life in so many ways. First—and most importantly—it’s where I met my amazing wife Melissa, who was also a student in the class. But, secondly, it’s where I found my true calling—engaging a scientific discipline, seemingly fraught with controversy, head-on from a Christian perspective. I had always liked school, but I had never been so excited about a class in my entire life.

In this class, we read an article from Scientific American called “The Mammals That Conquered the Seas.” It highlighted a University of Michigan paleontologist named Philip Gingerich and his work on the evolution of whales from four-legged terrestrial mammals. Growing up, I had never been particularly interested in fossils, but the idea of “walking whales” was something that grabbed my attention. Near the end of this course, we took a field trip to the natural history museum at the University of Michigan and got to go behind-the-scenes to explore the research collections and the fossil preparation lab. I got to see and hold some of these whale fossils that I had read about, and it was at this point that I began to realize that God was calling me to study evolution.

So during my final years at Calvin, I took as many science courses as I could, and in my senior year, I applied to several doctoral programs. I ended up being accepted to study fossil whales in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Michigan under the tutelage of Philip Gingerich himself.

For the past 12 years, the early evolution of whales has been the primary focus of my scientific research. Whales have become a sort of poster child for large-scale, macroevolutionary change—and for good reason. Their fossil record presents extremely compelling evidence for their evolution from terrestrial ancestors. Transitional fossils are becoming increasingly abundant. They have the intermediate anatomical characteristics we would predict, and we find them when and where we would expect to. We could even go into other fields—comparative anatomy, development, genetics, geology, stable isotope chemistry, biogeography, and so on—and our picture of cetacean origins doesn’t change. We have multiple lines of independent evidence that all tell the same story about whales evolving from animals that lived on land.

Earlier in my life, if I had been confronted with evidence like this, it would have made me feel pretty uncomfortable. Despite the fact that I don’t know precisely where it came from, I know I had this sense as a young person that science and faith were in conflict, and I needed to make a choice. Either God miraculously created the universe over the course of six days about 6,000-10,000 years ago, or God did not exist—he was a delusion—and the evolving universe described by modern science was purposeless. Science and faith were at odds with one another, and if I started to entertain notions of a long and complex history for life on earth, I was basically choosing to leave my faith behind forever.

This either-or paradigm was so pervasive in my thought that I didn’t even know there were other options. But, thankfully, God put the right people in my life to dispel this false dichotomy right when I needed to hear it. I began to see that there were a number of ways that Christians could deal with the scientific evidence and that working as a scientist did not necessitate a loss of faith.

As I began to carefully and prayerfully explore the different ideas that were out there, I found a number of scientists, theologians, and other scholars who saw things differently, arguing that science and faith could be quite compatible. I soon started to see the work of a scientist as a holy calling. Previously, I had this notion that new discoveries in science were a threat to God—as if God resides in the mysteries of the universe, and any time we figure out something new, we make God a little bit smaller. Following this logic, eventually scientific progress would result in a God so small that we could discard him completely. But I started to get this sense that I truly saw God in the details, in the complex inner-workings of natural processes. My view of God seemed to be getting bigger and bigger the more I understood about how the material world works.

It took me a little while, but eventually I came appreciate that discovering the inner-workings of the creation does anything but push God out of the picture. God is over all and through all and in all, regardless of whether we understand how something functions or not. For me, my work allows me to praise God even more, in ways that I wouldn’t be able to do if I weren’t a scientist.

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Ryan Bebej
About the Author

Ryan Bebej

Ryan Bebej is a professor in the Department of Biology at Calvin University, where he was selected as professor of the year in 2017. He earned his Ph.D. in ecology and evolutionary biology with a focus in paleontology from the University of Michigan. His research focuses on the evolution of aquatic mammals from terrestrial ancestors, including cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises) and pinnipeds (seals, sea lions, and walruses). He is especially interested in the earliest stages of these large-scale evolutionary transitions and the anatomical modifications that facilitate changes in swimming mode. He has excavated skeletons of fossil whales at Wadi Al-Hitan, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Egypt’s western desert, and he routinely spends time working in collections at world-renowned museums. Ryan is also deeply interested in the relationship between science and Christian faith. In addition to being a member of BioLogos Voices since 2016, he has been a Scholarship and Christianity in Oxford (SCIO) visiting scholar in science and religion and a participant in SCIO's Bridging the Two Cultures of Science and the Humanities II program. When he isn’t working, he loves spending time with his wife and two sons, playing German tabletop games, and rooting for the Michigan Wolverines and St. Louis Cardinals.