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Featuring guest Dan Kuebler

Dan Kuebler | Fact & Mystery

Dan Kuebler joins Jim on this episode to discuss what fascinated him about science, and how his subsequent career as a biology professor has impacted his faith as a Catholic believer.

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Dan Kuebler joins Jim on this episode to discuss what fascinated him about science, and how his subsequent career as a biology professor has impacted his faith as a Catholic believer.

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Description

A podcast that shows the harmony between Christian faith and current scientific discoveries by sharing the stories of interesting people who have found a better way of understanding science and Christian faith.
  • Originally aired on April 01, 2021
  • With 
    Jim Stump

Dan Kuebler got his undergraduate degree in English—it was not until his senior year that he joined his first lab and fell in love with biology. He joins Jim on this episode to discuss what fascinated him about science, and how his subsequent career as a biology professor has impacted his faith as a Catholic believer. The conversation covers his experience as a graduate student at University of California Berkeley, later work on science and faith (exemplified by The Evolution Controversy, which Dan co-authored with Thomas Fowler), and the impact all this has on his approach to science and faith education as Dean of the School of Natural and Applied Sciences at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio.

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Transcript

Kuebler:

There’s this idea that, you know, with science you just get all these facts and we’re getting closer and closer, we’re gonna have full, complete understanding. And I think, you know, it’s almost the exact opposite. As you penetrate nature, you do get more and more understanding, but you also are faced with this bigger and deeper mystery, both at the sub-atomic level and up to you know, the biggest level of the galaxy and the universe.

I’m Dr. Daniel Kuebler. And I’m the Dean of the School of Natural and Applied Sciences at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio.

Stump:

Welcome to Language of God. I’m Jim Stump. 

I first learned about our guest today, Dan Kuebler, back when I was teaching philosophy at a small Christian College. I was tasked with teaching several sections of a course we called Logic and Critical Thinking. And given what I took to be the rather poor level of literacy among our students about such things, I thought it might be a good idea to use the book written by Dan Kuebler and Thomas Fowler called The Evolution Controversy. The book is not a defense of any one position as much as it is an attempt to look at the various camps and the arguments they use to support their positions on creation and evolution. Well that book set off a chain of events that eventually led me to… let’s just say “redefine my career goals.” That’s a story for another day, but Dan’s work nonetheless remains important and helpful in this conversation.

In this episode we talk a little about what led him to write such a book, and more about the differences between Protestant and Catholic conversations on faith and science; and then we wade into some pretty technical microbiology, tackling proteins and amino acids and how they come about. But this isn’t just an exercise on how much we remember from our high school science classes. These ideas have been used to make some bold claims about the way the world works and about how God works in the world, and so we try to sort some of that out. 

Let’s get to the conversation. 

Interview Part One

Stump:

Well welcome, Dr. Dan Kuebler. Thanks for joining us on the podcast.

Kuebler

Thanks, Jim. Thanks for having me. I appreciate you having me on.

Jim

So you are a biology professor. But I see on your CV that your undergraduate degree is actually in English. So I’m curious to hear a little bit about your journey to a professional career as a biologist. How did that happen?

Kuebler:

Yeah, I think I was one of the, you know, your typical wandering undergraduate students, didn’t know what they wanted to do. And I switched majors like three or four times,and sort of settled on to English, somewhere my sophomore year. But at the same time, I had always been interested in science. And I thought I might like a career in medicine. So while I was an English major, I started taking, you know, sort of the pre-reqs to go to medical school. And it was during my senior year, I was taking a biology course and the professor invited me to come and work in his lab, even though I was an English major. I warned him. I said, “I’m an English major, I don’t know what I’m doing.” He was very open to having me come work in his lab. And it was just doing molecular virology in the lab and I just sort of fell in love with research. And decided I never applied to medical school, and I applied for a master’s program there at that same school that I was at a Catholic University, and got in and kept working in that lab for the next two years and got my master’s degree there. And then went on to get my PhD at UC Berkeley after that. But it really was being in the lab that got me interested in science, actually doing it—a lot of it is, you know, grunt work, boring, but when you actually discover something and figure out limits, it’s just a wonderful feeling. And I had a great mentor at the time, and it was just a great experience.

Stump:

So looking back now, with hindsight, even before your college years, do you remember things that you might say now, may have inclined you toward science or at least having the predilection for once you got into the lab and started monkeying around with with the natural world that you’d say, yeah, this was fun, this is something that maybe I have been pointing toward. 

Kuebler:

Yeah I think, you know, my dad was an engineer. My mom was in math education. So they’re sort of the science and the tinkering. And it was sort of in my blood, I guess, you know. And so, yeah, I think maybe being an English major was sort of being trying to break— 

Stump:

Those were your rebellious years.

Kuebler:

[laughs] Although, you know, it was great, you know, being able to write, particularly, when you’re trying to write your thesis. Most scientists when they get to that stage, that’s, you know, such a laborious thing. And having that English background made it a lot easier on me when I got to that stage.

Stump:

So what kind of biology did you specialize in then at Berkeley and then into your career?

Kuebler:

Yeah, so I got my degree in molecular and cell biology. And got my Masters in that as well. And that’s even my first lab experience was sort of in molecular biology.

Stump:

Well, we will talk a little bit more about some of the technical side of biology in a little bit, but first, let’s go back and hear a little of what your faith journey has been like. So you teach at Franciscan University, Catholic institution, one that takes their Catholicism pretty seriously. So I’m guessing that’s been an important part of your life. 

Kuebler:

Yeah, I was, you know, I was raised Catholic. I went to an undergraduate—went to Catholic University of America, in Washington, DC. So I’ve always taken my faith, you know, seriously but it really wasn’t, I think, actually, until I lived in Berkeley, that it sort of became my own. You know, you have your sort of parent’s faith, of the faith you grew up with, and then, you know, sort of gets challenged and people ask, you know, why are you Catholic? or Why do you believe this? Why do you take your Christian faith seriously? You know, why do you go to Mass? When people ask those questions—they didn’t ask those questions at a Catholic U, you just sort of assume that you’re going to mass today, okay, whatever. TYou didn’t have to sort of defend your faith. It wasn’t really until I lived in Berkeley that I had to think it through and it became my own. And it became a sort of central aspect of my life.

Stump:

Yeah, it’s not the story of everybody who goes to Berkeley that comes away with their faith being stronger. Are there—was it possible that it could have gone the other way? Or were you facing some kind of questions that you were trying to get sorted out?

Kuebler:

No, you know, I don’t think I was facing was, you know, a major crisis of faith. It was just, you know, you’re thinking, well why do I believe what I believe. And, you know, my wife, who—we were dating at the time, when we first moved out there—she has a very strong Catholic faith and, you know, the conversations with her, and she strengthened my faith and thinking about why I believe what I did, sort of just, you realize, okay, this is a big commitment, you know, do you really—is this really how you’re going to live your life? And based on the example of a lot of family members and so forth, I think that witness that they gave to me made me realize, yeah, this is how I want to live my life and I wanted to defend my faith. And it really became mine.

Stump:

Good. So let’s talk a little bit about the interaction of science and faith. And it’s tempting for me to say that the science and faith conversation has been dominated by Protestants. But I suspect it’s more accurate to say that the Protestant science and faith conversation has been dominated by Protestants, because there’s this other very rich conversation that’s been going on in Catholic communities for a long time, much longer, right? And you’ve had some interaction in both of these worlds, in the science and faith community in both of these worlds. So I wonder if you could talk a little bit about how that conversation may be different in its Catholic context than most of us Protestants have been aware of?

Kuebler:

Yeah, I think they’re, you know, having been raised Catholic and have been in sort of a Catholic educational environment for a lot of my career, you know, I obviously, think of the face science sort of issues or dialogue from a Catholic perspective. And there is, you know, a long sort of history of the Catholic Church interacting with science over the course of millennia. And there is, you know, sort of a way that I think Catholics sort of think about science and faith that I didn’t appreciate was sort of distinct or a little bit different until about six years ago, I had the opportunity to spend two summers in Oxford with a number of, sort of, Christians who were interested in the science and faith dialogue, and I find myself as just one of two Catholics there. And that was an amazing experience, because I learned, you know, sort of quite a bit about how, you know, from a Protestant perspective, different denominations have different issues, different ways of looking at the science and faith and different questions come up. 

I think one of the things I think that’s unique from a Catholic perspective is that you do have sort of a unified sort of teaching body that you can look to in terms of issues about science and faith. So for example, evolution, you know, when you look at the what does the church say about it? What do the Popes say about evolution and how that might be integrated with your Catholic faith? And what I’ve noticed, you know, from my Protestant colleagues is that they—it depended on what denomination they were from and different ones had different issues. Not that there’s some homogeneity in sort of the way Catholics think about it, but at least there was sort of something to point to when I would, you know, discuss this with my students. And say,”okay. Well, here’s what, you know, Pope John Paul II said about it.” You know, which gives you sort of a little bit of guidance, I think, to set the discussion.

Stump:

Yeah, I think that’s an interesting way to put it, that there’s some guidance there, where it’s kind of the Protestant way of saying, we’re only going to read the Bible. You know, we had this sola scriptura thing back during the Protestant Reformation. But then anybody could read the Bible and interpret it any way they wanted to. I mean, that’s a bit of an exaggeration. But it certainly resulted in the 10s of 1000s of different Protestant denominations that there are in the world, in the world today. And so I wonder if you’d talk a little bit too about the Bible, and the way it plays into that Catholic understanding of issues, maybe not particular issues, but more generally, in science and faith to say there is an official teaching that we follow, not just here are these words that we get to interpret however we want to or however seems right in our own eyes, and whether that dynamic—whether there are pros and cons to that. Are there some things that are made easier? And some things that are made more difficult because of that dynamic?

Kuebler:

Yeah, I think you’re right. There are pros and cons in terms of just having fruitful dialogue about things because there is, you know, the idea of, well, how do you interpret scripture? How do we get started on this? You know, rather than okay, we just have to look at the words as they literally are written there. You know, I think that in the Catholic tradition, looking back over it, you know, the church fathers had different ways of looking at Genesis, for example. And the church has talked about, you know, there has to be sort of a historical understanding of what the author was trying to get across as well as there’s a divine—it’s still divinely inspired. And so there’s is the different meanings of scriptural, you know—the allegorical meaning, the literal meaning. And so that sort of framework is really helpful to keep you from being stuck, sort of, in a box, I think, when you’re discussing some of these issues. Sometimes, though, the drawback is, you get someone says “well, the Pope said this, you know, about evolution.” So, for example, if humani generis in 1951, the document when the pope talked about—Pope Pius talked about evolution, you might take a quote, say, well, that means we can’t we’re not allowed to think this, this and this. Whereas, you know, there’s debate over what did the pope mean when he said that? We talked about monogenism versus polygenism? And you’ll see some people say, “well, no, he ruled out the possibility of polygenism” and then other theologians will say, “well, no, if you take it in context…” But sometimes there’s like this overly dogmatic reading of “oh, this is what the Pope said, therefore, we can’t think this.” Which is, you know, there are certain things that’s the case for Catholic but I think there’s a lot of what the Pope says or the pope writes where he’s not speaking as sort of the chair of Peter, he’s talking, you know, as a Catholic bishop and trying to penetrate issues just like the rest of us.

Stump:

So just this morning, I read an article that was on science and faith, it was mostly about creation care, environmental issues, but they quoted a Protestant college student who went to Notre Dame, a fairly well known Catholic institution, right? Went there as a creationist but then changed her beliefs there because of the actual science she had learned. But this then was a challenge to her religious beliefs, and even caused a crisis for her of faith of some sort. And but she was quoted in this article saying that she was surprised, though, that when she talked to her Catholic friends, she learned that evolution didn’t really conflict with their faith, that they didn’t see that there was any problem to that. Do you find that to be the norm among students that you teach that evolution isn’t really a big stumbling block at all for one who wants to, you know, be very true to the faith?

Kuebler:

Yeah, I think in general, that’s correct. From a Catholic perspective, that is not as big of an issue, as you see in some Protestant denominations. That said, there is, I think, a strong minority undercurrent within the Catholic community that does see an issue with it. And it’s not necessarily so much a literalism, you got to take Genesis as historical fact, but more so that they see, you know, as part of the culture wars type thing where evolution is part of this desire to remove and make morality relative and take away any sort of, you know, guidance about how we’re supposed to live our lives. And I do get that from students on occasion. But in general, you’re right, it is no, as big of an issue for Catholics. And I think part of that is, you know, if you look at from particularly the last couple Popes: Pope Benedict, Pope John Paul II, of the last 30 years, 40 years, the Popes have been very open to the idea of evolution. And Benedict in particular wrote a lot about, you know, the complementarity of the two. And I think that sort of writing on that from the top has made people realize, you know, they might not think about it that much. It’s not something, you know, they think about evolution, but they, you know, if you ask them, “well, I know, the Pope said something about that being Okay, so it must be okay. I don’t have an issue.” Right? So I think in general that’s true.

Stump:

Are there other questions that, say your students there at Franciscan, that are in the space of science and faith, are there other kinds of questions that you get fairly regularly in an introductory biology course, students who grew up perhaps very conservatively Catholic and then are getting this scientific education, are there questions anywhere in that space that that are common? Or particularly for Catholics?

Kuebler:

Yeah, I mean, there are specific evolution questions that I think are common, because I think they’re not—you seldom get them that they’re going to reject evolution outright. You know, but there is that question that I get all the time well, how do you reconcile, you know, humans being created in the image and likeness of God with an evolutionary process? Because they have the sense of, well, evolution, there’s some evidence there, it seems to be, you know, a good theory. But how does that fit? So I think they have more questions about how do I fit these together, when they start to think about them seriously, rather than thinking well I can’t think about putting them together. They just don’t really—they sort of assume they must be able to fit together, but I’m not really sure how.

Stump:

So the image of God concern is one where they say if we share common ancestry with other animals, then this seems to undermine a unique place for humanity. Is that the concern? 

Kuebler:

Yeah, right. Well, how do you get you know—I think the biggest thing I think that I’ll get with students is the concept of original sin. Right? And as the, you know, the Catholic church, you teach that original sin is the fall of Adam right, the fall of our first parents or group of parents or however you want to put it. But how do you fit original sin into, you know, an evolutionary process? And I think those types of questions are things that at least these conservative or more Orthodox Catholic students will have about how do you put all that together?

Stump:

And how about for you personally?Just finish some of your journey here. Were there ever any times in your scientific education where you felt that what you were learning through science was somehow conflicting with what you believed as a Catholic Christian?

Kuebler:

No, not so much. I mean, I think, you know, early in grad school, and I started to read some of the sort of the intelligent design, biological intelligent design books, like Behe’s work and so I was sort of intrigued by the questions that he was raising, but I didn’t really seem to be excited about the answers he was proposing. But I just said, these are interesting questions, you know. How did this happen? How did this structure evolve? And that really got me sort of interested in sort of evolution and faith intersection that I’ve been, you know, sort of fascinated with and interested in teaching and writing about, you know, the last 20 years or so. But that didn’t necessarily cause me to, you know, sort of lose my faith, But it did inspire me to think deeper about how these things fit together. And does the science really say? And what does our faith really call us to believe? And how do they fit together? Or where do they not fit together, if that’s the case?

Stump:

So one of the fruits of those questions you were asking, I think came about in the book that you wrote with Thomas Fowler, what was that back 10 or 12 years ago, called The Evolution Controversy, A Survey of Competing Theories. How did that come about?

Kuebler:

Yeah, it came about—I was actually still at Berkeley at the time, and I had met him via email, I think. We had been introduced by a mutual friend and we were talking about, you know, just sort of laying out a resource that could put what is the evidence that, you know, creationists put forth about it being a young earth? And what are the issues with that? What’s the evidence for, you know, that Darwinian biologists put out? What is the evidence that the Intelligent Design advocates put out? And what are the issues with that? And some of these other, sort of, we call it meta-Darwinian theory, but really, it’s sort of the extended evolutionary synthesis nowadays is how it goes by, these other sort of processes that might affect evolution. We thought it’d be useful to have a book that sort of laid this out and tried to be as unbiased as we could, although, you know, it’s impossible to be totally unbiased with a subject like that. But just to put out, this is what the evidence is, this is how the evidence has to be explained and sort of the shortcomings of the different ways of explaining this and to sort of give some sort of a first approximation of these things for people that were interested in that because I always got questions about that. And some of it I didn’t really even know, particularly sort of what are the creationist arguments for?

Stump:

Well, after your book, you came to my attention again, when you wrote an article for Dennis Venema on our website, Dennis is a genetics Professor up in Canada has been super instrumental in the development of science content for BioLogos—hope to have him as a guest on the podcast in the not too distant future. But he was doing a series on biological information and intelligent design. How did you get to know Dennis, was it that Oxford group you were part of?

Kuebler:

Yes, it was. So I got to know him, you know, spend two summers in Oxford. And he was one of the other biologists that was there. So I had a natural affinity for talking with him. And, you know, we had a lot of good discussions. 

Stump:

So Dennis was writing for us, writing this big series on biological information and intelligent design? How would you characterize the Intelligent Design movement if you have students that hear these here these phrases and say, intelligent design? What’s that? Don’t we believe in an intelligent designer of some sort?

Kuebler:

Exactly, I get that question all the time. And I try in my classes and in my writing, I try to distinguish—I actually call it biological intelligent design, versus philosophical intelligent design, because as Catholics and as Christians, we all are philosophical intelligent designers in the sense that we believe that, you know, it’s reasonable to assume that there is a God right? And that’s a different argument than what you know, the Intelligent Design movement is. And they are trying to demonstrate through science that science can demonstrate that God exists. And basically, they do that by trying to demonstrate the futility of natural mechanisms to explain certain biological phenomena. And so that’s distinctly different argument, I think, then sort of the traditional, you know, arguments for the existence of God or why do you believe God exists? Which I know some people—you know, it is certainly a faith in God and as Catholics particularly believe that that faith is reasonable, we have reasons for before that faith, and it’s a rational belief that God would exist. And that’s quite different than, you know, the biological intelligent design argument.

Stump:

So we should note that there are people affiliated with the Intelligent Design movement, the biological side, as you’re calling it, that are kind of all over the map in terms of what conclusions they draw necessarily from biological evidence. I mean, there are young earth creationists who consider themselves intelligent design people. And there are people who accept the common ancestry part of evolution, at least, that would call themselves intelligent design. So you can’t necessarily tell exactly what somebody believes on those certain issues just because they say they are part of intelligent design, but rather, as you say, that’s more more a method or more how you go about coming to those positions. Is that what you’d say?

Kuebler:

That’s right. I think, you know, at its core, the argument within the biological intelligent design community is that natural mechanisms cannot fully explain biological evolution. There are certain structures, behaviors or things that natural processes could not come about, that there has to be some sort of insertion of divine intelligence into the mix to jumpstart the system or to move it forward. And you’re right. There could be young earth creationists that would accept that argument. It could be people that believe in common descent could accept that argument. But I think they all share that core belief that natural natural mechanisms alone can’t explain how certain physical structures or processes could have evolved.

Stump:

And comment on that a little bit as a biologist, if you would, and a person of faith. Is it—because one of the things—  We obviously at BioLogos have a fair number of people that we converse with and many of them that are attracted to this are sometimes concerned of why are you always critiquing intelligent design? And one of the answers to that is that we’re concerned that it’s undermining science in a way, if it’s, you know, illegitimately at least, for the times when it’s illegitimately trying to poke holes in what we think is a fairly well established scientific process. But it’s more than the motivation behind that, that I wonder how you might react to. In that Ii it somehow holier? Is it somehow more in keeping with faith to think that we couldn’t explain things on a natural basis and therefore God gets put into that process? Or is it better to say, isn’t it marvelous that we can explain what God has done through natural processes? Or how do you, you know, how you feel about the, you know, the kind of motivation that’s behind intelligent design in that regard?

Kuebler:

Yeah, I think the the motivation behind him, I think one of the things that always strikes me is that philosophically, they are more akin to atheists than they are to, I think, at least from my perspective as a Catholic, a Catholic understanding of God’s—how God operates in the world, right? The atheist and the intelligent design both look at it as either God did it or natural mechanisms did it. And so if we can explain— 

Stump:

Not both.

Kuebler:

Not both, right. And so if we can explain everything by natural mechanisms, therefore, God doesn’t exist. And that’s a view I think, that clearly, you know, sort of atheists have. But I also think it’s a view that sort of filters into the Intelligent Design movement. So the idea is, you know, if we can explain how this structure evolved by some natural processes, well, you know, the bigger question is, why do those natural processes exists at all and, you know, what is behind them? God allows, you know, this to evolve via natural processes. And that is sort of a Catholic or Christian view of, you know, how God can work. It’s not a—God is the ultimate cause of everything. And so that if you can show that something evolves by some natural process, it doesn’t remove God from the picture. And if you are hinging your belief on that there’s something that science will never be—you know, some physical thing that science can’t explain, like this structure evolving, then I think your theology is in a really bad place.

Stump:

Yeah. So and many of the scientists that that I hear from, who discover things in the lab, who discover things in the natural world, that uncover some way that that the natural processes work, that becomes an occasion for glorifying God even more right? It’s not like it takes away the wonder and the awe, it enhances that for many who are able to probe even deeper into the mysteries of the natural world.

Kuebler:

Yeah, I agree. And that is one of the things that I see in nature, right? There’s this idea that you know, science, you just get all these facts. And we’re getting closer and closer, we’re gonna have full and complete understanding. And I think, you know, it’s almost the exact opposite. As you penetrate nature, you do get more and more understanding, but you also are faced with this bigger and deeper mystery, both at the subatomic level and up to you know, the biggest level of the galaxy, you know and the universe. So it’s like, you know, trying to understand God. We can understand God to some extent, but he—God is beyond us. He’s a mystery that we’ll never fully be able to exhaust that understanding of God, because we are creatures. And it’s the same way, I think, with his creation. We can penetrate it. We can understand it. We can move forward with our understanding, but there’s always—every time we figure something out that opens up even more questions. And there’s this mystery that we’re trying to grasp, both in creation and in the Creator.

[musical interlude]

BioLogos:

Hey listeners. I’m just here with a quick plug for the BioLogos forum, a place filled with active discussions about many of the topics covered in this podcast. In fact, each episode of the podcast has a specific thread where you can discuss what you’ve heard. The forum is a place where questions are welcome and where conversation is civil and gracious, even when topics are controversial. Bring your questions or share your story with a community filled with experts and other curious learners from a variety of viewpoints.You can find a link to the forum at the top of any page on the biologos website, biologos.org.

Interview Part Two

Stump:

Well, let’s move from the general to the specific, and particularly this article you wrote for us a while back, and then some updates to that. Start, if you would, by giving us—and remember, this is audio only, so we may have to go slowly, and I may have to interrupt you to say, explain this part a little bit more. But start, if you would, by saying what this is addressing that comes from the intelligent design community that is thought to be one of those issues that science may not have a good enough explanation for. And they conclude, therefore, that there must have been another supernatural process at work.

Kuebler:

Right. So, one of the arguments that you often get is that sort of new proteins, novel proteins couldn’t evolve from from scratch, that you can’t get new information to come out of nothing—although there’s a big debate of what nothing means. But the idea is that how do you get a new protein evolving, because there’s so many possible protein sequences out there, that to stumble upon the one that works, they would argue as sort of astronomically large odds stacked against that. So for example, if you had a protein, that’s 100 amino acids long, so these proteins are… 

Stump:

Yeah, start by giving us that process. Because I think for a lot of people, when they hear evolution, they’re thinking at the level of species. So tell us what are the proteins doing? And then where do they come from at this molecular level that you work at? 

Kuebler:

Yeah, so you know, the proteins are largely the workhorse, the molecules that do a lot of the work in the cell or in the body. So they give the body its structure, allow your muscles to constrict, allow things to move in and out of cells, allow you to break down things for energy. And so these proteins are made of amino acids are these small molecules, and you think of them as like Lego blocks, and you string a bunch of them together, and you get this big molecule called a protein. And so for proteins to work, they usually fold into a three dimensional structure, and then they’re able to do what that protein’s function happens to be. So you have a collagen that is a protein that gives your bones structure. And myosin is a protein that allows your muscles to constrict. And so if you think about how many possible proteins are out there, that are possible, there are often intelligent design advocates will give some argument like this: to get to a specific protein that’s maybe 100 amino acids long, well there’s about 20 amino acids that are biologically relevant that you find in the proteins in your body or mind. There’s a lot more amino acids, but there’s only about 20 that are relevant biologically. So how many different possible proteins are there that would have 100 amino acids strung together? And the answer is like 10150

Stump:

Because this is, at each one of those 100 amino acids, it could be any one of the 20.

Kuebler:

That’s right. So you know, the odds for a specific, to get to this specific sequence, it’s one out of 20 to the 10150, which, okay, that’s a big number. Evolution doesn’t have the time to be able to sort through and get to this particular sequence.

Stump:

Because the claim is that there’s only a very small number of that 10150 that would actually work to do the job that these proteins are doing?

Kuebler:

Well, that’s what the argument is, that there’s a really small number that would work. And that there isn’t enough time to sort of, for evolution to sort through all of those different possibilities. There’s only 1080 particles in the universe, right? So it’s a big number that you could never sort through that.

Stump:

And when you say sort through, you mean, if these are just generated randomly, right? Does this organism get one that works? And if it doesn’t work, it’s not going to live and reproduce? Does this one get one that works? And so we’re just looking for some random generation of the protein that works to is what ID is saying, there’s no way that that could have just happened. 

Kuebler:

Right. It’s just stumbling on the needle in a haystack the size of the solar system, you know, to be able to pull that out just by random chance. 

Stump:

Okay, so that’s what ID is arguing and I think you can find that exact argument in a book by Doug Axe, who’s one of the main people at the Discovery Institute that has been working on these sorts of things. So then what’s your response to that?

Kuebler:

Yeah, there’s a number of things, assumptions that are made there that I think are problematic and don’t reflect what we know about the biology. And in fact, not only that, since I wrote that article, there’s been even more information that we’ve learned about how proteins work that even makes it even less likely that their argument can hold up. But one of the first things that is important to recognize is that when you take a string of amino acids, these proteins, where we put a bunch of amino acids together, they start to fold. And when they do fold, they fold into only two secondary structures. There’s things called alpha helixes and beta sheets. And basically, you can get most any amino acid sequence to fold into alpha helixes and beta sheets, not because you need a specific sequence of amino acids, but because the underlying chemistry of the way amino acids are structured, that that’s the stable way for them to form when you put them into water, like the water aqueous environment of the cell. And then from there, there’s only a certain number of ways you can put these alpha helixes and beta sheets together, you can only arrange them in so many ways. So proteins tend only to fold into, you know, a couple 1000 different types of folds. So it’s not as if you have this sort of infinite number of possible protein structures, and that you just gotta kind of randomly stumble on to one of these structures. In fact, you only have a very limited number of protein structures because of the underlying chemistry and physics. 

Stump:

So I may be vastly oversimplifying things here and feel free to correct me. But is the kind of underlying point then here that the process of evolution at this molecular level here is not nearly as random as it’s been portrayed sometimes to be, but that we might even speak of an underlying law like quality to this process that I think some people are nervous to use with regard to evolution in that regard. But is that what you’re pointing at? 

Kuebler:

I would point that out, you know, if there is an underlying order in the chemistry and physics. So the idea is if you rerun evolution and proteins were trying to evolve, they would still fold into alpha helixes and beta sheets, they would still fold that way because that’s what the chemistry dictates, right? And so if you rerun evolution in the same universe with the same chemistry and physics, that’s how they would fold. It’s not something that evolution has to build or stumbled upon, as soon as you put amino acids together, that alpha helix and beta sheets are stable ways in which they can fold. So there’s an underlying order that, that it’s not just sort of random, what they fold into, they fold into be based on sort of the law and the the order that you’re finding in the universe.

Stump:

So that makes me wonder if there’s a different way of even portraying this science for people who are coming at this, particularly from a position of faith, that may be something to the effect of, that underlying order maybe didn’t have to be that way. But is there some comparison even to what say physicists and cosmologists do with fine tuning of the universe to say, maybe there’s something deeper here that, you know, doesn’t end up looking miraculous to us, as scientists, but sure looks like there’s something behind all of it that set it up so that it would work and that creatures like us could eventually come out of it? Is that stretching too much to characterize it in that way?

Kuebler:

Well, I think it’s certainly true that we find ourselves in a universe that has the order and structure that allows evolution to occur. And it’s not any universe that’s going to allow that. There’s a certain level of order that has to be there, and you talk about the sort of the fine tuning—there is an order at the fundamental foundational level of the universe that physicists can explain, they can measure and explain the different forces and so forth. And that order is essential for evolution to work. Not only is it essential for it to work, but it also guides it in these ways where it guides it into alpha helixes and beta sheets when proteins fold. And there’s a level at which, you know, you ask that sort of metaphysical question, why do we live in such an ordered universe? And I think that that that points to, there’s some deep structure here, deep order that that might go beyond a simple scientific explanation.

Stump:

Okay, so keep this story going a little bit, because you wrote this article for us several years ago. And just recently, I’ve seen a couple of science news items about protein folding, and wonder how these impact the argument. Just a week or so ago, I saw a story about protein evolution in which it was claimed that scientists have now seen how new proteins can develop from non-coding DNA. So I wondered if that was significant at all to this and to explain that you might have to go back and even say, where do the amino acids come from that go to make the proteins?

Kuebler:  

Right. So no, I think this is one of the most interesting things that’s come up in science in the last decade that undermines that ID argument there. So if you look at the human genome, you have 20,000 genes, but what you see is you have a certain region of the DNA that’s read to make an RNA, which basically has the information to make the proteins, what amino acids to put where to make this protein. And then there’ll be a big space, this sort of space before you get to the actual gene. And so this intergenic space, which isn’t really used to make proteins, it has other functions. But what they found is that there always seems to be some sort of background, accidental sort of reading of this intergenic DNA, and you would expect it, you’re just what it does, it just makes a random protein, right? It just reads this and just makes a random amino acid sequence. And you would think that if that’s just happening, you would never get a functional protein, if the ID argument is correct, that there’s only you know, if it takes one in every 10150 to get there, right. But it turns out that a lot of these sort of non-coding regions, if you just accidentally turn them on, and there can be mutations that accidentally turn them on, can lead to proteins that can have function. And it really seems that there’s sort of background sort of exploration going on in every cell where you just sort of randomly turning on these intergenic regions. And usually, it probably doesn’t have any effect on the cell. But occasionally, you get a sequence that creates a protein that might have some beneficial effect on the cell. 

Stump:

Hmm. Interesting. Well, where do you think this science is headed? What are the kinds of questions researchers are working on now that you think maybe, maybe settled, perhaps during your lifetime, at least?

Kuebler:

Well, I think one of the things that I’ve seen in my lifetime, and I think it’s sort of changed the way I think I think about evolution. And I think the way people start to view evolution, and I think it will continue to do that. And I think it might help alleviate some of the fears of the Intelligent Design advocates, is that you see more and more that the organism has sort of mechanisms in place that sort of aid the evolutionary process. So for example, just as sort of random background sampling, trying to turn on and make genes. You have, you know, sort of epigenetic changes that organisms can have where they respond to their environment, and then can turn on and off genes that can then be inherited. And so what you see I think, is a return of sort of the organism to the center of evolutionary biology, rather than seeing the organism as being sort of, at the mercy of its genes or some passive processes. That the organism has an active role in evolution. And I think that it’s a more fruitful way of looking at evolution. And it’s also, I think, one that is more amenable to sort of an idea that there’s a purpose behind everything, that everything that is here, all of these factors are working together to produce some grand sort of orchestrated bio. Rather than just, you know, random mutations hitting away at a gene, but rather, the underlying physics, the chemistry and the way the organisms interact with each other, and how they interact with the environment. You have this big, huge network of complex interactions in these beautiful orchestrated relationships in creation, that out of which comes all of these creatures that we see around us. And I think that there’s a deep beauty in that. And I think it’s amenable to a Christian theology.

Stump:

Does that speak against at some level a kind of reductive view of DNA that might suggest that ‘Oh, yeah, at some point, we’ll be able to read the entire DNA of any organism and know exactly what kind of lives they lead, what kind of life it is?’ It’s more complex than that, right?

Kuebler:

Yeah. And that’s the thing, I think back in the 90s, when I was in grad school, everybody thought hey, we’re gonna sequence all these organisms, and we’re gonna know everything. And nobody thinks that now. And I think it’s crazy that we actually thought that back then, because genes don’t do anything on their own. Everything a gene is capable of doing is only capable of doing it because it’s part of an integrated whole. And you could just as easily say, the organisms control their genes, because they turn the genes on, and they turn the genes off, and they activate them and modify their genes, in some cases, like an immune system. So the organism influences the genes just as much as the genes influence the organism. And I think you see this two way street just as the organism influences its environment, it creates its niche in the environment. And then the environment can influence the organism. So you see this reciprocal nature and all these complex interactions that show that this sort of a simple reductive approach isn’t going to get you to a full explanation of how things work.

Stump:

So if you’re giving advice to students that you advise or mentor, who want to have a career in biology, what are those areas of biology that you’d especially say, this really looks like it’s going to be the most fruitful area of inquiry over the next generation of what may be a good place to apply your your curiosity and your talents in biology.

Kuebler:

Yeah, I think moving forward is this intersection between biology and computer science sort of systems biology, where you trying to understand this complexity, or to see how lots of things interact at once, is going to be a very fruitful way of looking at biology and modeling. When I was going through, you know, biology, there wasn’t this, it was much more reductive. Let’s look at this gene, how it works. And there’s a lot of things you can learn from that. But now, I think people are seeing to really understand when to see how all these things work together. And so the more math and more computer science you have, the better you’re going to be able to answer biological questions over the next few decades.

Stump:

Any predictions on what we’ll discover over those next few decades that may blow our minds?

Kuebler:

NCAA Tournaments going on right now and I lost all my predictive value.

Stump:

Same.

Kuebler:

I can’t even predict that I don’t want to try to predict where biology is going. All I know is that in 10 years, I’ll be telling my cell biology students, this is totally different than what I taught you 10 years ago, what we thought was true here was incomplete. And we found things that we had really not even imagined were occurring in the cell.

Stump:

Fair enough, fair enough. Though, let me not end there by just merely saying that the science is going to so radically change that gets you that’s weaponized sometimes against accepting the valid conclusions of science today. In some sense, would you say that whatever those unexpected things are, though, they’re going to be building on the pretty tremendous, tremendous discoveries of science that we have going right now?

Kuebler:

For sure, for sure. Some of the things that we didn’t think possible we didn’t think would occur are we’re going to find some additional things, additional mechanisms, additional things that go on in the cell, but it’s not, I think, undermine the sort of the basics of what how the cell works and what we know for sure.

Stump:

And that wonder and surprise, just makes it fun in the laboratory, then, right?

Kuebler:

Exactly, exactly.

Stump:

Well, thank you, Dr. Dan Kuebler, for talking to us here today.

Kuebler:

Thanks, Jim. Thanks for having me. It’s been a pleasure talking with you, I very much enjoyed our time.

Credits:

BioLogos:

Language of God is produced by BioLogos. It has been funded in part by the John Templeton Foundation and more than 300 individuals who donated to our crowdfunding campaign. Language of God is produced and mixed by Colin Hoogerwerf. That’s me. Our theme song is by Breakmaster Cylinder. We are produced out of the remote workspaces and homes of BioLogos staff in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

If you have questions or want to join in a conversation about this episode find a link in the show notes for the BioLogos forum. Find more episodes of Language of God on your favorite podcast app or at our website, biologos.org, where you will also find tons of great articles and resources on faith and science. Thanks for listening. 


Featured guest

Dan Kuebler headshot

Dan Kuebler

After studying English during his undergraduate years, Dan Kuebler pursued his love of biology until he earned a Ph.D. in it from the University of California Berkeley. He has gone on to author books and articles addressing the relationship between science and faith, such as The Evolution Controversy, which he co-authored with Thomas Fowler. Dan is Professor of Biology and Dean of the School of Natural & Applied Sciences at Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio. 


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