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Featuring guest David Lahti

David Lahti | Nature, Culture & Evolution

Jim and David talk about cultural evolution and how the ideas interplay with the current landscape of faith and science in the United States.


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yellow bird on branch singing

Jim and David talk about cultural evolution and how the ideas interplay with the current landscape of faith and science in the United States.

Description

David grew up exploring the natural places where there were few people. But his love for nature led him back to people and to a deep desire to understand why we have the ideas that we have about the world. His training in both philosophy and biology has given him an ability to explore these questions from many different angles. In the episode, David tells of his circuitous journey, from childhood to his current career, and how his scientific view of the world and his spiritual view of the world were developed in a way that made them inseparable. Then Jim and David talk about cultural evolution and how the ideas interplay with the current landscape of faith and science in the United States.

  • Originally aired on October 22, 2020
  • With 
    Jim Stump

Before You Read

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Transcript

Lahti:

In my own life, it has been enormously important for me to experience nature in order to understand evolution and how evolution interplays with a faithful consideration of God as creator. And I’ve got to say that it hasn’t, by any stretch of the imagination, decreased the role of creator and as a matter of fact, it has revolutionized my understanding of what it means for God to be a creator.

I’m David Lahti. I’m an Associate Professor of Biology at Queens College at the City University of New York.

Stump:

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

David Lahti is the kind of person who is interested in just about everything, but his love for nature might be seen as a kind of throughline in all his pursuits. He grew up tromping about in the forests and fields of New England; he’s been a park ranger, a high school biology teacher, and then earned PhDs in both philosophy and biology. We’ll talk about his journey a bit before getting to some of his current interests in how our ideas change over time—ideas about nature, about science, about religion.

David’s work tends toward philosophical questions. But he approaches them from many angles, and one of those angles is through empirical scientific study. What he learns from science helps guide him toward answers to some of these questions about why we humans are the way we are. A career of this kind of work—the kind that uses both scientific methods as well as philosophical inquiry—has given him particularly wise insights on how to find harmony between his faith and his scientific view of the world.  

Let’s get to the conversation.

Interview Part One

Stump:

Well, thanks for being here, David. We’ll get to the specifics of some of your work in a bit. But first, tell us, as all conversations start these days, how things have gone for you over the last six months. We know that you were one of the early ones afflicted with COVID in New York City, toward the beginning of the outbreak there. How did that affect you personally and even the work in your lab?

Lahti:

Yes, that was an interesting experience to say the least. Fortunately, I did know about COVID before I got it, so it wasn’t a complete mystery. And once the respiratory symptoms hit, it was pretty clear what I was going through and other people in Queens had contracted it just before that, including in Queens College, and I had just been there in close quarters with several faculty members, one of whom was exhibiting symptoms at the time, which, you know, six months down the road seems like a silly thing to do, but that’s what we were doing. We were interviewing, online, a prospective faculty member. And so there was coughing going on and everything. And I wasn’t too surprised that I did end up having symptoms myself. And so I ended up living like, you know, one of those people you see in a Dumas novel, like Man in the Iron Mask or something. I’m down in the basement and then my wife just puts a tray of food at the top of the stairs and I, you know, crawl up there with my shirt over one shoulder and grab my food and snarf it down, you know, every day. And so that’s the way we lived for a few days.

Stump:

None of the rest of the family got it? 

Lahti:

Well, my son had a fever for one night and I also have a daughter and my wife, and they didn’t feel quite right, but they did not come down with the full blown symptoms as I did. Although my difficulty breathing only lasted for about 24 hours. It was really weird. It was like breathing through a snorkel. So it wasn’t like breathing through a straw. In other words, I could breathe. I wasn’t worried about that. And actually, when I called the hospital, they said until you’re actually worried about it, don’t show up. But it was, you know, if you’ve been snorkeling or scuba diving, it does require you to constantly think about your breathing, which was annoying, but that’s all it was really, annoying. And then, you know, pretty soon it cleared up. 

Stump:  

And what then were the effects for your lab? It seems fairly difficult to do field biology, at least virtually.

Lahti:

Yes, I ended up leaving school before the official shutdown, and then soon, you know, a few days later, this was sometime in mid March, no one could go back. And so fortunately, although I do have 26 researchers in the lab, most of them are at the stage of data analysis and data manipulation, so they could still do things on their computers from home all summer long, spring and summer. But we do have a pretty substantial field project going on along the Bronx River. And it did put a kink into that. We might have to extend the Bronx River Project for another year in order to get all the data that we need.

Stump:

Well, we will come back to your lab and some of the work you do here in a second, but let’s first back up, and hear some of your own origin story. You’re an evolutionary biologist, but come from a community of faith where there was a fair amount of resistance to that sort of thing, right? 

Lahti:

That’s right, Jim. I grew up in a Christian home in Leominster, Massachusetts. And it was an interesting childhood because I had three sort of experiences that were all inspiring in somewhat different ways. I went to a Catholic school my whole childhood, from first to twelfth grade. But my family was Protestant. So at home, we were encouraged to read the Bible, and we talked a lot about being saved by faith, and then I would go to school and have religion class there, which when I was younger, I was exempt from and everybody thought I was an atheist. [laughter] But it was basically— 

Stump:

They were probably just protesting in their protestant way.

Lahti:  

And we got, you know, somewhat different theological perspectives there at school. And then when I got out of school I was sort of a nature boy, so when everybody else was going over to friends houses and fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth grade, I just went into the woods. And that was another source of inspiration for me and, you know, meaning. And so these three aspects of my life were always sort of clashing or merging, sometimes happily, sometimes unhappily. And in high school, my faith and my family’s faith ended up clashing with what I was being taught about evolution in biology class. And not even only in biology. It came to a head actually in humanities, in eighth period humanities in my freshman year, where we were talking about origin stories and reading the Enuma Elish, and the Gilgamesh, etcetera. And as part of that we were asked to sit on opposite sides of the room one day, after doing a little bit of research, based on what we thought about the origin and development of the universe. If we believe in what the Bible says in Genesis, we were to sit on one side of the room, those were the creationists. And then if we accept science, that tells us that the universe is billions of years old and that all of us descend from a common ancestor, then we’re the evolutionists, and we sit on the other side of the room. And I remember–

Stump:

No pressure here. 

Lahti:

Yeah I know. So this is really where this thing came to a head in my younger life. And so here I am. I’m assuming that there’s going to be a bunch of people on each side. That’s the way debates really go, right? So I started sitting on one side of the room and then I noticed that everyone else—there’s 50 students in the class—is sitting on the other side of the room. So they’re all over there on the evolution side. And I’m the only person, literally the only person sitting, or about to sit down on my side of the room, which is the creationist side. And so I stood up and said, “oh, just kidding.” And I started going over to the other side of the room. But Mrs. Connoyer, the teacher, wouldn’t let me do that. She said, “nope, it’s going to be you and me. We’re going to be sitting on this side.” So she was, you know, trying to be nice. Except that’s not really nice when you set up one student against everyone else, at that age. But anyway, so we had our debate.

Stump:  

Did you convince any of them?

Lahti:

Ah, I don’t remember that, to tell you the truth. I doubt it. I mean, some people said that I did a good job but I think they were kind of looking at me with a little wider eyes than they had the day before. But that was— I liked doing it because, you know, growing up in a household as I did, I knew the Bible really well and so the only thing I didn’t know was the science. But they didn’t know that either. You know, so I had a one-up on the rest of the class a little bit because none of us knew the biology, but I knew the Bible.

Stump:

So take us through some of the next steps then because obviously at some point this changes for you.

Lahti:

Yes, yeah. And even then, I should say, that I was dealing with these things a little bit. And that’s why I knew about the verses that might have been taken one way or the other. But I was called upon in that class to take a stand and so that’s what I did. But I should say, by the time I went to college, and I’d taken another biology course after that, I mean, in my senior year, I started to wonder what a true Christian understanding of nature is. Because I certainly didn’t find a great deal of understanding or inspiration really from nature in my Christian colleagues at church or in my family. There was a respect for nature in a very kind of a distant sense. But the people like in Boy Scouts or that I just happened to know who were walking the Appalachian Trail or anything, anyone who knew a lot about nature seemed to accept evolution. And when I went to college, I went to Gordon college, a Christian liberal arts college in the North Shore of Massachusetts, I found that this was true not only at people that I just happened to run into, but this was true of all of my Christian biology professors. And I went to an environmental institute in Michigan— Mancelona, Michigan—called Ausable Institute of Environmental Studies and I found that it was true of them there, too. And not only were they all biologists, but the people at Ausable were the greatest naturalists that I have ever met. They knew every peep from the grass and every chirp from the boughs. And they knew how to find an organism that you wanted to see. And they knew all of the plants even before they flowered, etc. You know, and so I was, I didn’t know that people like Aragorn, or people who knew nature inside and out actually really existed in this world. And they followed Jesus too. So I was like, what kind of people are you? What do you do for a living? Because I knew I wanted to do something about nature in my career, but I didn’t know what the options really were. And then all of these people were Christian biologists, they all loved creation, and they all accepted evolution and this sort of blew my mind. And so my first two years at Gordon were sort of a whirlwind of intellectual energy and trying to just, you know, take in as much as I could and pause my assumptions and critique my previous assumptions on the way the world works and what a Christian faith would require me to accept versus reject.

Stump: 

So given that you weren’t necessarily encouraged in understanding nature in a way that fit with your overall worldview, where did your interest in nature and science come from, you think?

Lahti:

Well, as I sometimes say, when people have come in and out of my lab and my friends in science, that there seems to be two different ways of coming to a love of nature. Some people love nature first and then they become scientists and others just really love science and then they end up appreciating nature as an outgrowth of that. And for me, science is just the way that nature is studied or the way that I’m studying nature anyway. So I didn’t grow up as a scientist, although I did have a quote unquote lab in the garage. But mainly I just wanted to make gunpowder out of things you can find out in the woods, but anyway, which I never succeeded in doing, of course. But in reality I just loved—I don’t know why—I just loved being out there. It was partially because of being influenced by fantasy and by 20th century children’s literature. Not only the obvious Tolkien that I’ve already alluded to, but also even Beatrix Potter and some younger children’s stories, where all the interesting things, from Hansel and Gretel to Peter Pan seem to be happening in places where there aren’t a lot of people. And so I just loved being out there where there weren’t a lot of people. And fortunately, my parents had just a few acres in the back and they were connected to other people who had similar land. And so I had a little triangle of fantasy land out there that I can imbue with anything I want. And I didn’t know what anything was. It wasn’t like I was a naturalist. I would name everything new names that I just decided to give them. But so, it wasn’t really until I went to Ausable in my sophomore, between my freshman and sophomore year, that I started to know what the names of all these things really were and came back and opened my eyes to that. So I don’t know where it came from. My mother was raised on a farm. My father was a city boy. But they did encourage me to go outside but they would have been just as happy if I had spent all the time riding bikes and throwing a basketball. And I did spend plenty of time doing that, but really, I loved going into the woods.

Stump:

Okay, so you’ve taken us into college here where you’re becoming more comfortable with this evolutionary science, but your career has not just gone straight from there into a science degree of some sort, right?

Lahti:

Right. And part of the reason for that is because once I made this transition, where I realized that a love of nature and an understanding of nature could go hand in hand, I got fascinated with why people have the ideas they do about nature, including creationism versus evolution, but more generally, how powerful this idea of evolution actually is. And more general philosophical questions regarding the status of the natural world and our knowledge of it and in particular our place in it, as human beings and to what extent are we part of nature versus apart from nature. And so, even though I was really interested in nature, then I started getting interested at sort of a meta level about the nature of nature and the nature of our views about nature or creation. And so I ended up going into philosophy to struggle with these sort of. Wasn’t quite me-search, as they say, in other words going into a field because you want to understand yourself. But I was encouraged, both by my family and by my professors, to do that sort of thing, to think about what I was interested in and just go for it. I still didn’t know what I wanted to do for my life’s work, but I knew that being a biologist of some sort would probably be what we were talking about. Because, you know, what I really wanted to do is become either one of Tolkien’s elves, an ancient Druid, or a Native American and none of those— 

Stump:

The job market wasn’t good for those?

Lahti:

Yeah, it didn’t seem, I mean, there weren’t any majors for those things or anything like that. So the next best thing seemed to be this biologist, because the people that I had seen out in the woods, who knew everything about nature, those were the kinds of people that you could, that was about the closest you could get to those three other jobs that I couldn’t get. So I knew I was going to do that eventually, but I wanted—  I loved Oxford. I was a history major and went to Oxford as a junior, my junior year abroad, to study medieval history there. And I loved it so much I wanted to go back. And so when it looked like I could actually study philosophical attitudes towards nature there, for a master’s degree, I went ahead. And we went out there and my wife worked for the University Museum at Oxford and I got my, what ended up being a PhD, because my director of studies said that my ideas, or my proposal to look at this, you know, how strong is evolution and explaining humans, in particular human morality, was too big for a master’s degree, so I’d have to reapply for a doctorate. And so that’s what I did. And ended up doing that for three years or so. But then I did come back to the states and went into an Ecology and Evolutionary Biology doctoral program. Because you can’t just—I knew I wanted to be a biologist and you can’t be a biologist with a philosophy PhD. You know, you can do philosophy in a biology department, like if you’re a professor in the biology department, you can do philosophy. No one’s going to stop you from doing it. But just because of the infrastructure and the nature of philosophy departments, you can’t do biology in a philosophy department. You can’t do empirical biology. And so I knew I had to get a PhD in biology, as well. So it ended up being two PhDs.

Stump:  

A lot of the science and religion work that goes on these days is done by people who don’t very often go into an actual science lab. Or perhaps they did that for a while, but have now turned to some of the more philosophical aspects of that. And I think you’re really well equipped to talk about some of that. But first, I’d like to hear more about the actual working biologist job that you have. And I think our audience might benefit some from hearing what that work is really like. So can you give us a kind of overview of your work in your lab? Maybe what a day in the life of David Lahti looks like?

Lahti:

Yeah, sure. In the lab in general, I would say we do some natural history, which is, you know, describing new behaviors, identifying species and that kind of thing, and some ecology. So for instance, I mentioned the Bronx River Project earlier and we’re studying the diversity of all sorts of species along the Bronx River, from New York City up into the suburbs. But for the most part, I would say most of the people in the lab, and my closest interest right now, is studying the evolution of behavior, especially learned behavior. And that sounds strange to a lot of people because with the nature nurture debates, we’ve been sort of enculturated into thinking that there’s learning and then there’s evolution, and the part of organisms that evolves is sort of opposed to learning. So you either learn something or you evolve it, you know, so we evolve our limbs and we learn our language, and never the twain shall meet. But in fact, learned behaviors do evolve. And so a lot of people in my lab are looking at systems where they can study that. But more broadly, I’m interested in the evolution of behavior, behavior changing through time, and looking at the forces that guide that evolution. 

Maybe I’ll give you a few examples. So, one paper that was most recently published is on mongooses. And we found that a mongoose that lives in India, that was introduced to a lot of islands across the world, the small Indian mongoose, evolved in its behavior and also the morphology that sort of supports the behavior. And this makes a lot of sense if you think about it, because in India is rather low quality habitat and the mongooses are very rare. They’re not commonly encountered. And so they’re distributed thinly throughout the landscape. And they have the scent glands, which are communicative tools where they can communicate with someone without actually meeting them. And that’s what scent glands are for. And they’re also promiscuous, meaning that the females and males don’t choose who they mate with, because if they did, that would probably be a death knell for them. If you only meet a member of the opposite sex, once in a long while, you probably ought to mate with the first one you come across. And that’s why promiscuity generally exists in nature, is because of that situation in rare species, for instance. And so you have this situation of long distance communication with scent and a promiscuous mating system. Now, what happens when you move these animals? It’s like a natural experiment. So the explorers and the seafarers took these mongooses on board and they introduced them to all around the world, the Cape Verde Islands, Mauritius and the Lesser Antilles, and Hawaii, etc. And in all of these places, so we went to all these places, and they have evolved in both of those areas. So the scent glands have all but disappeared, they become vestigial, because now they’re on these rich islands where they can—there are no predators in general—and they can multiply like crazy and so they see each other all the time. So they communicate directly rather than by scent. And so their scent glands have become vestigial over just, this is just, you know, 150, 200 years. So what we’re doing here is we’re looking at actual evolutionary changes to match new environments, in just the historical period, and that is something that’s always been close to my heart. It’s always been wonderful for me to be able to see evolution happening in real time.

[musical interlude]

BioLogos: 

Hi Language of God listeners. Here at BioLogos we think that asking questions is a worthwhile part of any faith journey. We hope this podcast helps you to think through long held questions and consider new ones but you probably have other questions we haven’t covered yet. That’s why we want to take this quick break to tell you about the common questions page on our website. You’ll find questions like “How could humans have evolved and still be in the image of god,” “how should we interpret the Genesis flood account?” and “What created God?” Each with thoughtful and in depth answers written in collaboration by scientists, biblical scholars and other experts. Just go to biologos.org and click the common questions tab at the top of the page. Back to the show!

Interview Part Two

Stump: 

What are some of the main questions that you’re trying to answer that you hope to get answered before your career is over? 

Lahti:  

Oh, geez. Yeah, I’m, you know, coming up on 50 next year. I’m only beginning to realize that I’m not immortal. Well, that I’m not immortal on this earth, let’s just say that. And in that my career isn’t going to go on forever and ever and ever. So I have been–

Stump:

Again too bad you couldn’t take that elf occupation?

Lahti:

[laughs] That’s right, exactly. And so I realized that all of the, my huge OneNote file that has, you know, thousands of lines of ideas of things that I could do, I’m not gonna be able to get to all those, right? So I’m gonna have to choose which things that I want to do. And so there’s a lot of empirical projects going on now that I want to finish but I would say that right now in terms of— there’s lab things and then there’s personal things. So in terms of the lab, cultural evolution is increasingly a major part of what we’re looking into. And so how ideas change through time and why ideas change through time.

So for instance there’s an animal model system that’s great for this, and that’s bird song. And people might think that that’s a contradiction in terms—cultural evolution in birdsong. But it’s funny, when I say it seems like a contradiction to some people, when I was going up for tenure, somebody who was discussing my my dossier said in a very dry voice—this was told to me secondhand, by somebody else, another professor—but they said, “birdsong isn’t culture and culture isn’t biology.” And what we mean by culture in biology is any socially learned trait that can change through time and therefore be different in different populations. So just as language is culture in humans, and so you can go into a different geographical area, and people are going to be speaking differently, and as a matter of fact they might speak so differently that they won’t be able to understand each other, the same thing happens in birds. And so we’re looking into this very process in birds because their generation is only a year, our generation is much longer than that, their variation is much less, but they go through the same developmental process of learning, songbirds do, from their elders, as we do in our language. 

And so just like we use fruit flies to understand genetics, because they’re a simpler system, and mouse to understand cancer, you can use birdsong to understand cultural evolution, the pattern of changes of behaviors through time. And so there are a lot of people in my lab who are doing that sort of thing. And it’s probably the biggest project in my lab right now, this house finch cultural evolution project, in other words, looking at the change in song in this one particular species of birds, the house finch.

But personally, I’m interested in this cultural evolution idea for other reasons. It’s not only because I like birds and I want to understand that. I do like birds but I also have this other motivation which is to try to understand how ideas change through time, human ideas and especially the subject of my first PhD, which is moral ideas. Like how did our moral ideals come about and why is there variation now? You have to look at this philosophically, theologically, sociologically, anthropologically, evolutionarily in order to get a sort of a big picture of why this is going on. And the philosophical or theological wrinkle of this, or aspect of this, is understanding whether our views are true or not and how we are to assess that, which is enormously different from anything that biology can deal with. 

So that’s my biggest personal goal in terms of academia. But I must mention one other personal goal, which is not directly academic. It’s really about outreach. And that is just to encourage Christians to think twice about evolution if they’re rejecting it, and to encourage atheists to think twice about this very same thing, the antagonism supposedly between science and faith. And that’s really, I would say, even the reason why I’m interested in the evolution of morality. Because that really gets right to the most difficult thing to talk about with regard to an interaction between a scientific worldview and a faith-filled worldview, and so that’s why it sort of interacts. For me this outreach project of trying to find a rapprochement between understanding faith and understanding evolution. And then this idea of studying the evolution of morality. 

Stump:

Does cultural evolution itself come to play in this second thing you’re talking about too? These ideas of rapprochement between science and faith are themselves products of cultural evolution in some sense, aren’t they? Where do they come from? And can we figure out how they can develop more fruitfully or?

Lahti:

Right, exactly. So the way I think about this is that our ideas that we tend to have now and that our friends and relatives and colleagues tend to have did not just come out of thin air, they have a history. And I’m not one of those who is going to commit the genetic fallacy that, you know, we talk about in philosophy, which is just because you have a history of your beliefs, that’s a way for me to undermine them. I don’t think of it that way. Because all of our beliefs have some sort of history, both developmentally within ourselves and then other people who have held those ideas before us. But what I do think is that sometimes a lack of awareness of where these ideas come from, can make us think that the ideas that we happen to have, that we maybe haven’t investigated or criticized in ourselves to the extent that we could, we might be tempted to think that they have a different status than they really do. For instance, in my family, for instance, and in my church, there was an assumption that any of the church fathers, any of the writers of the Gospels and the Epistles, and all of the great moral and theological teachers and writers throughout history would all be appalled at evolution. And that’s not really true. And as a matter of fact, some people such as Augustine, came remarkably close to recognizing the possibility that God creates in a sort of gradual process throughout time. And once we realized in the 1800s, with a great delay, that it’s possible for organisms to go extinct—and the first example of that that was widely accepted was the dodo—we had to accept the fact that things certainly change in  at least one way and that is that species can go extinct. It’s possible that species can come into being as well. And when I realized a lot of the roots of some of the creationism or attitudes towards Genesis and attitudes towards nature, from a Christian perspective that are current in our society today, when I looked at those historical accounts it was very surprising how much, yes, this cultural evolutionary process must be taken seriously. And we’re not just approaching truth about creation from an ahistorical, out-of-the-blue perspective. And I think that can be helpful, but it can also be a little scary because then you’re wondering well, how much of what I believe is actually the case versus just something I socially inherited from people who were concerned about the rise of atheism during the deistic period? Or something like that.

Stump:

How do you design experiments for cultural evolution? Or what are the kinds of questions that you’re able to ask us? Because as you’re sitting here talking, it sounds like philosophy, right? What’s the connection there between biology, or is the guy at your tenure committee hearing correct, that you aren’t really doing biology when you’re doing what you’re talking about here?

Lahti:

Right. And so certainly some of what we’ve been talking about now, and especially when we get into science and faith, a lot of this is just, we’re talking about ideas, we’re talking about philosophy, we’re talking about meaning and interpretation of existing results, etc. But in my empirical work on cultural evolution, let’s just give a couple examples from our studies of the house finch and these changes that are happening over time. One is to find out how learning from others happens during development. And so a recent paper we just published shows that house finches can learn the trills that canaries give, if they’re not presented with any house finches in their experience. And that’s kind of interesting, because we usually think of one bird only listening to other members of its own species. And this has been shown, across species learning has been shown in other other birds as well. So it just shows the sort of limits of learning during development. Well, you’re talking about methods or how do you do experiments, you have to raise these birds in captivity and then you play them, or either play them songs that you want them to hear and learn as, as you youngsters or you put them in the same soundproof chamber as other birds that you want to train them on. 

And then another type of study is not really experimental. It’s sort of like the mongoose study in terms of a natural experiment. And in this case, we’re looking at house finches that were introduced from somewhere in the United States, we don’t know where, into Hawaii about 100 years ago. And so what we do there is, if we record enough birds in Hawaii and we see exactly the way they sing, we have a rigidly quantitative computational approach to what their songs look like. And then we do the same thing to birds all up and down the West Coast of the United States where we think they might have come from, we should be able to do a very similar thing to, what a say a Martian anthropologist might do if they came to the United States and said, “where do people from Brazil come from?” And then they could find out using the same kind of analysis that they come from Portugal, or, you know, some of their ancestors come from Portugal. And so we’re doing the same thing and we’re trying to find out where these Hawaiian birds were originally introduced from in California. 

So just as we can use genetics to determine ancestry, we can also use cultural traits or socially learned traits to determine ancestry in birds. So these are the kinds of empirical studies that we can do. Now, it’s not related to morality, but it is related to how these things change through time, how ideas or how behaviors can change through time. I’m not going to say that the house Finch project is going to help inform my understanding of morality. I would say that those two research topics are quite divorced from each other and they probably won’t have much to say to each other. But the common interest that motivates them both is trying to understand how cultural traits are socially learned traits change through time.

Stump:

To bring this back to some science and faith concerns, perhaps as a bridging question here though, does cultural evolution open the door a little bit more to people of faith who are not willing to look at the human being as just some sort of genetic machine that has evolved over time, but there’s something else going on with regard to our development that can’t just be reduced to forces of nature?

Lahti:

Right. Yes. I think what the study of cultural evolution does is it undermines the popular misconception, even among many scientists, when I say popular I just don’t mean laypeople, I mean, actual scientists sometimes, the popular misconception that you should be studying humans as either a learning machine that is a blank slate or as a genetic machine that delivers ancient adaptations. And there were reasons to be wary of both of those views. And I think people of faith should be encouraged by the development of this more integrated approach to human behavior, and psychology. And I think this is the way of the future in some sense, to look at us in a more integrative framework where we are incorporating many aspects of ourselves through development: the things that we learn, our ability to innovate, the inherited predispositions that we have. These all go together and out comes a thought process, a bonafide thought process, not just some sort of delivery of an adaptation, but not just a blind learning of whatever has been exposed to us during development. These two extreme ideas of nature and nurture are both really kind of medieval. And this more integrative framework of cultural evolution that looks at us as an active agent in our own ideas. And the implications that that has for population changes and changes in our ideas through time is really encouraging to me and I hope it replaces some of the earlier simplifications.

Stump:

Well, let’s see if we can apply some of the changes in a population over time idea of cultural evolution to this science and faith business here and recognizing that there is still a lot of resistance to the science of evolution, science of climate change, perhaps the science of COVID vaccines, there’s still a lot of resistance to that sort of thing among Christians in our country. And let’s say that you are assigned a small group of, let’s say, pastors who are skeptical of evolution, and you’re tasked with trying to persuade them of the truth that now seems so obvious to you. How would you go about doing that? How would you go about bringing about a change over time within that population of those ideas? What would the grant proposal look like if you had to devise one for such a goal, for such an outcome?

Lahti:

Right. Well, I would say that the first thing, I mean, I’ve dealt with a lot of people—dealing with even almost sounds a little pejorative, what I mean is that I’ve interacted with a lot of people— 

Stump:

Yeah, I don’t mean to turn all these people into test subjects.

Lahti:

No, no, this is definitely not going to be a scientific project. But the realization that I’ve had over the years is that the objections to evolution are not scientific in nature. They are moral, they are very personal, they are theological, they’re spiritual. And so I don’t think that we will get very far, or that I would get very far, in having a sort of these, this-is-the-evidence-for-evolution kind of project and expecting people to change their views in droves. I think the better option here is to attack the problem right where it really exists in the minds and hearts of the people who are rejecting evolution because they don’t object to gravitational theory, they don’t object to the origins of stars necessarily, or the cell-signaling pathways, and they don’t bother to see whether those things hold water. And so the reason that they’re interested in evolution is not because they’re genuinely concerned that it’s not good science. That’s more of a symptom than the root cause, I would say. It’s that people are worried that the new atheists are correct, in that once you accept evolution, you’ll realize how stupid your faith is, and you’ll abandon it. And so it ends up being two trenches on the opposite side of a no man’s land where you have the creationists on one side and the anti-theistic evolutionists on the other and strangely enough they agree on one thing, and that is that evolution and faith don’t mix. And so it’s that idea that I think is the crucial idea that we have to direct our energies towards or that I would try to. And so that’s not really a scientific matter. I would want to say things like that crediting God directly with creation can be accepted, but doesn’t mean that we should reject science. These are not alternatives. So God is credited directly with the development of humans in the Bible, such as in Psalm 139, “knit us in the depths of the earth,” etc. And this does not mean that we can’t study physiology and development. And so the evolution of humans likewise takes us from a single celled organism to what we are today. Not like development in 18 years, it does it over a much longer time period. No one has a problem of bringing us from a single celled organism to an adult organism and 18 years through development. And from a Christian perspective, despite Psalm 139 and other places in the Bible, where God is credited directly with human development. And likewise, I think that evolution has the same theological, philosophical status as development. It’s just a different biological process that brings us from single celled organism to an adult human being that thinks and feels and has ideas and can experience all that we can experience including a decision as to whether to believe in the transcendent. And so it’s things like that. I would just try to encourage people to say, “look, this isn’t as scary as it seems.” You just have to realize that God can be still master of Creation and the creator and accept science as the study of the mechanism.

Stump:

Does your own biography shed any light on this research proposal here too, of getting people out into nature? The way you were just blown away and awed by these people who could name every bird and every insect? Or does that—are we back to nature versus nurture here? And does that only work for people who innately have this sort of penchant toward nature to begin with?

Lahti:

Well, yes, I certainly think that there are plenty of people who will be inspired by those kinds of experiences, by getting out into nature and there are plenty of people for whom that will not be very much of a goad to a change in their ideas. I love the Romantic poets, such as Wordsworth, when he suggests that there are forces in nature that create philosophical and moral change in us. And yet, I don’t really believe that’s necessarily always the case. And I don’t think it’s always going to go in the direction that we would like it to go.  Everyone’s not going to become a lover of nature and a respecter of the transcendent, respecter of God, say, a believer in God, by going out into nature. As much as we would like to think that that would be the case. And certainly, if you already believe in God and you go out into nature there’s nothing that’s going to necessarily inspire you to say, “Oh, I wonder if there’s more out here that can be understood beyond Genesis one through three.” And but I would say that, yeah, in my own life, it has been enormously important for me to experience nature in order to understand evolution, and how evolution interplays with a faithful consideration of God as creator. And I’ve got to say that it hasn’t, by any stretch of the imagination, decreased the role of creator, and as a matter of fact, it has revolutionized my understanding of what it means for God to be a creator. And that is the best thing about this integration, is the revolutionary effect that understanding evolution has on a Christian understanding of creation and the Creator.

Stump:

For many people who started off the same way that you did, and then came to accept evolution, they do accept that sort of dichotomy of it’s either science that I accept or faith. You are saying that yours instead has been more of a transformation of the theology. So your theology hasn’t been unaffected by the scientific perspective that you had. Can you talk a little bit more about that today and what your faith looks like? What does a faith look like that is espoused by one like you who’s so immersed in understanding the natural world and evolution?

Lahti:

Right. Maybe that’s better, best attempted by saying how it changes my appreciation, because I would say my theology hasn’t changed very much, although I could be wrong about that, maybe in terms of hermeneutics or biblical interpretation, that kind of thing. But that probably would have changed anyway, just going to a Christian College and understanding how biblical criticism is done. But in reality it’s really my outlook. When I look at nature, I think of it differently. When I read Genesis one, I think of it differently. When I think about God, I think about him differently, because of evolution. And I would often summarize, even just to myself so I can remember this, I summarize it as three H’s: history, humility and holism. 

So one of the ways that evolution enriched my faith was by understanding that God created a 4D universe, that time is a part of creation. And so it’s it’s a knowledge of history and understanding of history. You can’t look—I used to think of that kid’s song, when God holds the world in His hands, that it’s a time slice, it’s like what’s happening right now. But in reality, it’s not only the world that he has in his hands right now, it’s the entire history of the universe. And it’s hard to think of it that way. But that’s the way evolution forces us to think of it because now the created order has another dimension. That’s what evolution essentially forces on us. And it’s kind of interesting also that it was a Jewish physicist in the 20th century, who made us realize that time is a part of the created order, when it was you know, Jewish nomads thousands of years earlier who first proposed that idea to us, that time itself was a creation by God. So it’s kind of interesting there.

But anyway, history. Then humility. You know, we come from dirt. You know, whether you take the Bible literally or figuratively or anything in between, science and the Bible speak the same about that, and that is we’re from very modest origins. God always uses humble materials. The imago dei or the image of God is bestowed to us as a gift. It’s not earned, we didn’t self create, etc. So evolution, by connecting us to other organisms and showing our humble origins, what that means that we are created from dirt. What that really means delving into that verse with an entire field is essentially what gives us this humility which God is always trying to instill in us in the Bible. The God of the Bible never has a problem with people who have lowly opinions of themselves. It’s always the conceited ones that are the problem. 

So there’s history, humility, and then finally holism, for me, the connectedness of all life, and the idea that all truth is God’s truth, that when you look at a tree, that’s a relative of yourself, and that all the days of creation are happening all the time. You can’t put things into boxes. Disciplines like philosophy, theology, biology, they’re human constructs. The creation is one essentially. And we are a part of it and yet elevated by God’s grace above it, to an extent. And so those things history, humility and holism, it’s not like we didn’t realize these things before, but I personally can say that an understanding of evolution has put all three of those ideas into sharp relief and made them mean something very different than they would have if I didn’t accept evolution.

Stump:

Does that direction of influence go the other way too, between understanding evolution and theology? Is there any way in which your theology affects your scientific work, your understanding of evolution?

Lahti:

I would say that it colors it, it tints it. I believe that a good scientist would be a good scientist regardless of their religious beliefs. When I say good scientists, I’m already assuming a lot, right? I’m assuming intellectual integrity and a certain moral compass, and we might associate that with a particular religious perspective, at least historically, and maybe in their own development or history, but if we can get to that point, where we can say okay, so and so is a good scientist, an honest and clear thinker, etc, and has the ability and the the ethics to do science correctly, then I believe that the science will be the same. The difference though, is when you bring a new species into the lab, or you look at an incredibly diverse hillside of wild flowers, or you learn about a new star system or a new fossil that indicates a new lineage that you didn’t know about beforehand, I think about that in a way that is very expansive. I have a metaphysical, it has a metaphysical effect on me. Whereas I think if I had a worldview where I was, “just the facts, man,” and I tried to keep everything limited by the scientific worldview, I would be hard pressed to have the same sort of respect, or the same sort of deep meaning of those kinds of discoveries, that I do when I believe as I do, that the universe has a purpose, and that everything in it does.

Stump:

Let me just end by asking you something I like to ask people a lot though. These in several different ways are kind of dark and troubling days in our society, in our country right now. Do you see any signs of hope, particularly from the perspective on the world that you have as a scientist and a person of faith, any signs of hope in this landscape today?

Lahti:

I would say, I would be rather conceited to think that I could predict where things are going to go. But if I were to—so I have some hope and some despair or cynicism, despair is kind of a very strong word. But I would say the places where hope comes from and now here I’m talking in almost a purely earthly perspective, because our greatest hope doesn’t lie with anything that’s going to be happening down in the next 5,10, 15 years, necessarily. But I would say where hope comes from, is my belief—and this comes from my scientific understanding as well—that people cling to ideas they have because they believe something is valuable about those ideas. And sometimes they cling so hard that they make errors in other areas. And this is the old, medieval, and even patristic idea of the orders of our loves. We can love something so much that we violate the proper hierarchy of where our love should lie. I am glad that the world isn’t filled with just a bunch of people who don’t care. A lot of the changes that we’re seeing now are a result of people, and I’m not isolating the left or the right politically or anything, but we have a lot of very strong opinions. And the reason why we have very strong opinions is because we believe that something matters. And I think that that is a hopeful thing. As long as we believe that something matters, I hope that we can come to the point where we can bring our ideas together and seek a productive way forward. I’m not saying I’m very confident about that. Because I do believe that it’s in human nature to have an us versus them kind of attitude. And sometimes we use the things that we find valuable in order to demonize other people, And this is going on in both directions right now in a way that I’ve never seen in my entire life, in the political realm. On the other hand, I’m glad that people just don’t have a, you know, a lack of caring about where the world is going, and I hope it doesn’t ever go in that direction. The lukewarm is the worst place to be, I think.

Stump:

Well, thanks so much for talking to us, David. I hope to talk to you again someday.

Lahti:

I’m sure we will. Jim. Thank you very much for having me.

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

David Lahti

David Lahti

David C. Lahti is an Associate Professor of Biology at Queens College, City University of New York, where he runs a Behavior & Evolution laboratory focusing mainly on learned behavior in birds and humans. Prof. Lahti received a BS in biology and history from Gordon College. He received a PhD in moral philosophy and the philosophy of biology at the Whitefield Institute, Oxford, for a study of the contributions science can and cannot make to an understanding of the foundations of morality. He then received a PhD in ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Michigan for a study of rapid evolution in an introduced bird. He has been a Darwin Fellow at the University of Massachusetts and a Kirschstein NRSA Research Fellow with the National Institutes of Health, where he studied the development and evolution of bird song. His current research projects include rapid trait evolution following species introduction, cultural evolution in humans and animals, and the evolution of our capacity for morality and religion

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