Randy Isaac

My Encounter with Evolution

on November 2, 2015

The wrapping on the package under the tree could not disguise that I was getting a book from my brother on that Christmas of 1966. Our sibling tradition of drawing names for exchanging gifts had given my oldest brother the challenge of finding a gift for me, 13 years his junior. I loved to read, so the choice of a book was easy, but little did he anticipate the impact his choice of topic would have. Unwrapping the gift, I found two small paperbacks: The Twilight of Evolution by Henry M. Morris and Why Scientists Accept Evolution by Robert Clark and James Bales. It was my first encounter with evolution.

Growing up in an insulated Mennonite community in southwest Kansas, I had attended only Mennonite schools and churches and had rarely encountered a non-Mennonite. My junior year of high school was the first time I went to a non-Mennonite school, forced by the closing of our community’s schools due to economic considerations. Along with other young people from my church, I was expected to be a witness to peers in what seemed to be a huge non-Christian organization of nearly 200 students. I had previously taken a general science course and was taking biology at the time but my interest in science had not yet taken shape.

I do not recall ever having heard of evolution until that Christmas, nor of any controversy of science and faith. My young and inquiring mind eagerly devoured those books. Having no basis for knowing alternative views, their philosophy fed my presuppositions. We had been raised on a diet of “us vs them.” The Mennonite community was truly a separatist group, isolated from the worldly influences seeking to distract us from God and our lives of holiness. The message that scientists who were not Christians would deliberately seek opinions that opposed the Bible seemed to make sense in a world of battling worldviews. My naiveté in science led me to unquestioningly accept the arguments against evolution. The books made the case that evidence for evolution was weak and growing weaker, driven only by anti-Christian sentiment.

The public high school was my venue for witnessing and speech class provided the opportunity to proclaim the message of creationism. I did so with enthusiasm. Pushback from a fellow student merely served to substantiate the resistance of the world. My excitement about these ideas carried over into my physics class in my senior year. Science became my passion, though I found few additional resources on evolution, and I was eager to pursue physics at Wheaton College. Little did I know what lay ahead.

None of my science classes at Wheaton dealt with evolution or even creationism of any kind. The subject matter arose in a very different context. I met and fell in love with Marta Ebeling (now my wife for more than 40 years). Shortly after we met, I was eager to obtain the approval of her parents who had been missionaries to Africa, the highest form of sacrificial Christian vocation. Her father had worked in language translation and loved to talk about the challenges of translating various biblical passages. He was also a member of the American Scientific Affiliation (ASA), the society for Christians in science (of which I am now the Executive Director), and had been greatly influenced by Bernard Ramm. Fortunately, Marta warned me that her father was not supportive of young-earth creationist ideas. I was puzzled but was highly motivated to keep my mouth shut. I dared not jeopardize the approval of her parents. Her father  had been a chemistry major at Wheaton College before going into the mission field for translation work. His background in science gave him a lifelong interest in issues of science and faith. I was greatly impressed as he talked about his understanding of many passages of Scripture. His deep knowledge was an eye-opener to me. I soon began to realize that most Wheaton science professors were ASA members and I began to connect with their vast resources.

The next ten years were a gradual transition for me from a strident young-earth creationist position to a much more open view. I devoured all material from ASA and Institute for Creation Research (ICR) and the National Center for Science Education (NCSE). I went to graduate school and studied condensed matter physics. The age of the earth commanded most of my interest. Of the many authors that influenced me, perhaps the strongest was Richard Bube. He was a leader in my own field of materials science and as editor of the Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, he published over a 100 articles and several books that I found highly relevant. Bube did not claim to be a theistic evolutionist but he did argue that theistic evolution was a viable position for a Christian to have. He never addressed any details of biology and I never took any biology classes. My eventual acceptance of evolution came from recognizing that there was no inherent conflict between science and theology, rather than from the direct evidence of evolution. My own training in physics helped me understand the age of the earth and the universe but I had no substantive encounter with biology at that time.

In the 80’s and 90’s, I was heavily influenced by the New York metropolitan section of ASA. From the very first publications in Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, I was intrigued by Intelligent Design (ID). It didn’t seem to be consistent with what I had learned from Bube, and the arguments seemed weak to me. In 1995 I had the privilege of attending two pivotal debates. The first was between Kenneth Miller and Michael Behe at the ASA annual meeting in Montreal. A few months later, at the University of Austin, I joined the standing-room only crowd at the debate between Phillip Johnson and Steve Weinberg. I was very impressed with Johnson’s civil and polite manner but found his logic to be weak and unconvincing. That Sunday I attended the church where Johnson gave the sermon. I managed to meet him personally after the service. I started by mentioning how I had been reading Bube and van Till. He brusquely interrupted me with, “Oh, they’re on the other side.” I was stung. His cryptic dismissal of my heroes spoke volumes and cut off all discussion. At that moment it became clear to me that unity within the body of Christ would not be easy to attain.

When I retired from IBM and took the job of Executive Director of the ASA, I felt I would finally have time to read and learn about issues related to science and faith. Hessel Bouma II was the program chair for the 2006 meeting at Calvin College. He was able to get Francis Collins to be a plenary speaker and to have a book launching and signing there. That was my first introduction to Francis and, in many ways, to the scientific evidence for evolution. I began to read many authors on all sides of the issue and was able to meet key biologists in person. Over the years, Francis CollinsDarrel FalkDennis VenemaCraig StoryDave UsseryJustin ToppChuck AusterberryJeff Schloss and many others helped me understand biology a little bit better. Meanwhile, I pursued all the alternative views as well. I found no credible scientific arguments against evolution. Most were based on common design arguments, which I found specious, or probability arguments, which I knew from my physics background to be less than compelling. The argument from information theory, most explicitly outlined by Dembski in our journal in 1997, also attracted my attention because of my career in information technology. I knew the argument wasn’t sound but identifying the precise nature of the weakness of the argument and figuring out how to articulate it to a public unfamiliar with information theory was a major challenge that would take years to flesh out.

In total, the clear and mounting evidence for evolution and the fundamental weaknesses of counter arguments combined to make a compelling case for me. Interactions with Rick Potts on human origins helped bring a focus on the issue of Adam and Eve. I do not have all the answers and I continue to struggle with many aspects of science and faith. But the overall clarity of the scientific method, the soundness of the scientific consensus on evolution and the poor reasoning of the alternative views have convinced me.

I am grateful for a community of scientists and theologians with whom to fellowship. We can support each other in the faith and share our excitement and passion for science and for God.

Randy Isaac
About the Author

Randy Isaac

Randy Isaac is a solid-state physics research scientist and executive director of the American Scientific Affiliation (ASA), where he has been a member since 1976 and a fellow since 1996. Isaac received his bachelor’s degree from Wheaton College in Illinois and his doctorate in physics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He joined IBM to work at the Thomas J. Watson Research Center in 1977 and most recently served as the vice-president of systems technology and science for the company.

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