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Featuring guests Dennis Venema and Michael L. Peterson

Dennis Venema & Michael Peterson | Intellect in the Service of Christ

Biology, philosophy and religion work together to help us to understand the world we live in and to better know God.

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Biology, philosophy and religion work together to help us to understand the world we live in and to better know God.

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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 July 08, 2021
  • With 
    Jim Stump

Before we can understand the interactions of science, religion, philosophy we must first know what each is. In their new book, Biology, Religion and Philosophy: An Introduction, our guests Dennis Venema—an evolutionary biologist—and Michael Peterson—a philosopher—work to define these disciplines before diving into the ways in which they inform each other, support each other, and ultimately help us to understand the world we live in and to better know God, the creator and sustainer of all things.


Transcript

Venema: 

You know, I kind of joke about this with my students that I supervise for, say, teaching assistants and I say, you know, if you’re marking a lab report, it’s probably, you’re probably not going to be happy if a student says the reason why the experiment failed was because God wasn’t happy with me that day or something along those lines, right. It’s this idea that science is limited in its scope. Science has a certain set of tools. They’re good tools. I believe that they’re God-given tools, but we shouldn’t think that science is going to be the answer to absolutely everything.

Peterson: 

Christian theology provides a frame, a worldview frame for the kind of world science exists in, and for the practice of science, like it does provide a frame for tons of other things, our moral life, our common life together, lots of things. So for me, the most fruitful interaction is between worldviews.

Venema:  

I’m Dennis Venema. I’m a biology professor at Trinity Western University.

Peterson: 

My name is Michael Peterson and I’m Professor of Philosophy at Asbury Theological Seminary.

Jim: 

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

The relationship between science and religion has always been complex, and as a philosopher myself, it’s no surprise that I think philosophy has a prominent role to play in that relationship. Our guests today help to illuminate the boundaries of these disciplines and also the areas where they overlap and even support one another. 

Dennis Venema is someone many fans of BioLogos may know as a long-time contributor to BioLogos and the author of a series of articles on the BioLogos website called Evolution Basics, a thorough guide to the science of evolution. Dennis is a biologist by training and a Canadian by nationality. And so the collaboration with Michael Peterson — a philosopher from Kentucky — is one that brings a wide set of experiences to their new book called, Biology, Religion and Philosophy: An Introduction, on Cambridge University Press. 

In the episode we talk about the roles and definitions of science and religion and philosophy, and we talk specifically about the science of evolution — how much of it is random and whether we can see it as goal-directed, or whether it’s legitimate to see God’s intentions for creation through evolution. And there were a few other topics in our lightning round at the end.

Let’s get to the conversation.

Interview Part One

Jim:

Michael Peterson and Dennis Venema. Welcome to the podcast. 

Peterson: 

Thank you. Glad to be here. 

Venema: 

Thanks, Jim. 

Jim: 

Dennis, a lot of the BioLogos audience will be familiar with you. Because of the years you’ve spent writing content primarily on the science of evolution for our website. But give us just a little bit of your story of how you became interested in science and genetics more particularly, is that what you always thought you do with your life?

Venema: 

As a kid, I didn’t really think that scientist was a possible career choice. I grew up in a small northern town in British Columbia, Canada, spent a lot of time outside, fishing, hunting, stuff like that. So I kind of had early naturalist sort of leanings. Short, the short version is I went off to university thinking I was going to do a medical degree because I was going to be a medical missionary. I had spent some time doing some short term missions as a teenager. And then, as I was doing a bachelor’s in biology, because that’s a good way to prepare for med school, I thought. I fell in love with science again, and decided to pursue that.

Jim:

And Christian faith was part of your growing up experience, too?

Venema:

Yeah, absolutely. I was in Sunday school from the get go, and grew up in that world. And yeah, and continue to live in that world. So yeah.

Jim:

And hold the tensions between the science of evolution, as you’ve come to understand it? In your Christian faith, I know that there were at least some times during your development that those were thought to stand in some tension with each other. But you’ve worked through that, obviously, any of the high points from that that you’d share here?

Venema:

People are often surprised to find out that I didn’t change my mind on evolution until I was a university professor. So I taught for the first three or four years at Trinity Western from an intelligent design perspective. And it was through the process of working on some scholarly research, a book chapter, that I decided I needed to do a deep dive into evolutionary biology just to see why I disagreed with it as it were, and in that process completely changed my views.

Jim:

Hmm, interesting. Well, we’ll get to what some of those issues are here in a little bit. But let’s bring Michael into the conversation. you’ve not had as much direct interaction with us at BioLogos. But you’ve certainly been involved in Christian philosophy, including the interaction between science and Christian faith for a good long time. Tell us a little of your story, how you became interested in philosophy as a profession.

Peterson:

I started out thinking I would do pre-med. Yeah, it really and but in my freshman year of college, I took a philosophy course, and fell in love with it and sort of saw a vision for intellect in the service of Christ, and decided that I wanted to pursue professional philosophy, this would have been in the late 60s. And there was really a burnout in the profession of philosophy, in terms of interest in religion, theism, Christianity, the prevailing view simply was that it was either conceptually incoherent, or had been soundly empirically falsified. And I actually was fortunate enough to become sort of, of age in philosophy and get my masters and my doctorate about the time there was a resurgence of interest in Christianity within professional philosophy, which was long burned out for most of the 20th century. So I rode, I kind of rode the wave in the early 70s, to the late 70s of philosophers who were Christian and also willing to say so, getting together and forming the Society of Christian philosophers that I’ve been deeply involved with. I published their journal for 37 years, and just now stepped away recently. It’s all open access online, faith and philosophy. And… 

Jim:

And Michael how about your interest in science? How did that become one of the topics that you as a philosopher were interested in exploring?

Peterson:

I did my doctorate on the concept of causality and explanation and scientific law. So I’m by training a philosopher of science. And that makes it — there was no, there’s no future at the time for somebody who was interested in religion to do a PhD in philosophy of religion. And that came later with this resurgence of the Society of Christian Philosophers. So with that, I got involved with that resurgence, interested in philosophy of religion, already had my credential, my training in philosophy of science, it was very natural to put the two together.

Jim:

Yeah, good. Well, our main topic of conversation with the two of you will be about the book that you have just recently written, or, perhaps more accurately, recently seen published, the writing has probably gone on for a while. But how did the two of you, a scientist from British Columbia, and a philosopher from Kentucky get matched up to do this project together, Dennis?

Venema:

I had the good fortune of meeting Michael a number of years ago, when he came up to Trinity Western to do some lectures. And during that time, I found out that he had an interest in responding to intelligent design arguments, and had done some work with C.S. Lewis, and very much enjoyed the lecture. So that was our first encounter. And then, when Michael was asked to do this book, he reached out to me, so maybe he can tell that side of the story.

Peterson:  

Sure, when Cambridge approached me about a book like this, in their series in philosophy of biology, which is very nice, developing series, I thought it would have a lot better impact if we could co-author between a philosopher of science and a scientist, who’s an expert, and keeps all the scientific things we say up to up to speed in the book. And so it was a nice, symbiotic relationship, I think that we cooked up to do this book. And the book is meant, you know, as just sort of a text and the layperson as well as a student or scholar would find out a lot about the ways in which religion and biology intersect. What’s at that intersection, and that’s, that’s the angle, we worked through about 10 chapters in that book, different ways of looking at what’s happening at the intersection.

Jim:

Good, let’s spend a little bit of time trying to sort out just what that intersection is. For you, in the book, spend some time at the beginning, defining science and religion and talking about the role of philosophy. Are the boundaries between these disciplines very clear? In particular, I have in mind the boundary between science and philosophy, and maybe I’ll motivate that question with the title for my own PhD dissertation, which I wanted to be on the interaction between science and philosophy. But of course, you have to narrow that down. And so I looked more specifically at physical theory, and instead of philosophy, broadly, at metaphysics, but even that’s not quite careful enough for a dissertation. So it ended up being metaphysics and the interpretation of physical theory. So I guess I’m most curious whether you think, Michael, this is probably a philosophical question, whether you think the task of interpreting the results of scientific inquiry is properly a part of science itself, or whether that’s a philosophical task, or maybe whether the answer to that question doesn’t even really matter. Take that wherever you like to Michael.

Peterson:

Yeah, no, I think science is maybe well characterized very briefly, as a set of practices that are communal, ultimately in nature, that tie theories to empirical results and empirical data. And out of that, we hope we get laws governing certain natural processes that will aid in explanation. So cause, law, and explanation are linked. That’s my dissertation. So at any rate, I do think that the practice of science because it’s so narrow and focused like that, that leads to its great success in modernity. And philosophy, of course, has a wider range. It’s not really asking specifically empirical questions, or formulating theories about how things work so much as it is asking either metaphysical questions about the nature of reality, or epistemological questions about the nature of knowledge, and so forth. And what — the way I see it is every discipline, not just science has to rest on assumptions. So if you think about it, science rests on philosophical assumptions, which cannot be established by its own methods. That is, that there’s a real world with orderly, rational, discoverable processes. And that we have the capability to know and discover these things. So those are philosophical, there are different philosophical perspectives that actually would not accept those assumptions.

Jim:

Yeah. So Dennis, Michael’s speaking my language here, but I’m curious how you, as a scientist understand this same sort of question about the boundaries that may or may not exist between science properly understood and some of those philosophical issues that come along with it.

Venema:

One of the really enjoyable things about engaging the science/faith dialogue for me was that I got to learn about these sort of philosophical issues. I was trained at the University of British Columbia, which is not a liberal arts school. So my humanities exposure was, you do an English course. And then you focus on your, on your discipline. So part of the one of the great joys, I mean, I also teach at a liberal arts institution where we love this sort of thing. So yeah, a big part of the joy of this whole process for me has been adding that component, I wish I could go back in time and do a liberal arts undergrad. Science is an interesting activity. I think Michael has spoken to it well, that it’s sort of very focused. But I see it more broadly as sort of a collection of activities that fall on a gradient. I mean, an evolutionary biologist is always going to talk about gradients. And I sort of see it as a collection of different activities. And drawing a line of demarcation on a gradient is always very difficult to do. And yeah, I embrace that. Because if the process, if the collection of activities that we’re attempting to describe actually falls on that gradient, then drawing lines of demarcation might be inappropriate to begin with. Although, you know, at various extremes of the gradient, it’s easier. It’s the close demarcations on sort of the middle of the curve that get more challenging.

Jim:

The transitional species between the two, huh? Is methodological naturalism helpful in talking about what distinguishes science from non-science? And perhaps explain even for our audience, what you understand by this rather daunting sounding phrase, methodological naturalism? Michael, can you take a first stab at that?

Peterson:

Yeah, I mean, I would say methodological naturalism is essential to science. It simply means not making judgments of value or judgments about religious truth or falsity, but trying simply to be neutral, and not prejudice your work. That seems threatening to a lot of people, well, you don’t admit the existence of God. Well, you’re leaving it in abeyance, you’re just not addressing the question of the existence of God or value or whatever. So methodological naturalism has been part of science’s success. And I know there are those who believe that it tips the scales. If you say, I’m committed to methodological naturalism, it tips the scales toward actual philosophical naturalism. And that, I think, is a false argument. I know both theists and non-theists, who accept that argument. I don’t, and I actually have some articles arguing against it. But I would say methodological naturalism is pretty much at the heart of science.

Jim:

So sometimes this is more pejoratively described even as pretending you’re not a Christian when you do science. And I’m curious, Dennis, whether when you go into the lab, do you pretend you’re not a Christian? Or how might you explain what we’re trying to get at here?

Venema:

Oh, that’s an interesting question. Certainly, my faith and who I am, it’s an integral part of who I am. So when I go into the lab, of course, I am a Christian, as I, you know, and a lot of the motivations for why I do what I do come from Christian convictions. But yeah, that question of when I’m in the lab, you know, I kind of joke about this with my students that I supervise for, say, teaching assistants and I say, you know, if you’re marking a lab report, it’s probably, you’re probably not going to be happy if a student says the reason why the experiment failed was because God wasn’t happy with me that day or something along those lines, right? It’s this idea that science is limited in its scope. Science has a certain set of tools. They’re good tools. I believe that they’re God-given tools, but we shouldn’t think that science is going to be the answer to absolutely everything right? It’s… there are questions that we want to ask that go beyond the tools of science to address. So that holding it in abeyance to say, okay, when I’m in the lab, I’m going to look for repeatable phenomena that I can describe and quantify and convince other scientists, perhaps of other faiths, that my results are repeatable. You know, that’s the kind of idea behind methodological naturalism that I see for a bench scientist, although most bench scientists wouldn’t really even know what you’re talking about when you use the term.

Jim:

And one of the complicating factors, I think, is that what is deemed to be “natural” changes over time, right? I mean, it used to be that disciplines like astrology were properly scientific, that the scientists of the day were engaged in but they wouldn’t have thought trying to understand the mind was a scientific claim. Or even during the time of Newton and arguments about whether forces were occult entities, you know, these were, so those kinds of things change over time, according to the consensus of science. And so that makes it a little trickier to establish it as a firm line of demarcation in some sense, it must be culturally relative, is that fair to say, Michael?

Peterson:

Well, I think the demarcation problem is always going to be with us. It’s certainly one of the fundamental problems in philosophy of science. But I do think that there are some shifting standards, yes. But you know, when we think the standards of what is science have changed, like the occult, that you brought up earlier, that doesn’t tie its beliefs to theories that are empirically grounded. And with these central convictions of science, you’ve always got to be looking for, are these things empirically grounded? Can they, the results be duplicated? That kind of thing. And that’s why the occult is no longer thought of as science. So even with brain science these days, yes, we’re studying the mind. But we’ve tied it largely to brain investigation. And so once again, it has this empirical foundation.

Jim:

Okay. Well, I think it’s fair to say that for a lot of scientific questions, it doesn’t really matter whether you’re a Christian or not that there are these big areas of independence between the work of scientists and Christian commitments, right? Dennis, you referred to this a little bit that one of the great virtues of science is that you should get the same results in your experiments, no matter what country you’re from, or no matter what religion you ascribe to. But maybe let’s ask then, where are the areas, you think, that have the most potential for interaction between the empirical findings of science and our Christian beliefs? Whether that’s on the positive side, as finding things that are mutually reinforcing there, or on the negative side where there might be tensions between these two? Maybe each of you give a couple of those areas that you think are the most fruitful areas of interaction between science and our Christian faith. Dennis?

Venema:

Well, it won’t be a surprise to anyone to hear that, you know, evolutionary biology, population genetics, paleontology, archaeology, those are obvious areas, for many Christians where there’s interest. A lot of that, though, I think, isn’t so much Christian faith, per se, but an interaction between one specific tradition that one has grown up in and there’s a lot of variation there, of course, as well. So those would be obvious ones. Abiogenesis is another one. And whether or not that’s properly part of evolution, or it’s distinct. And again, there’s a gradient there. You know, those types of things.

Jim:

Explain that big, fancy term. 

Venema:

Sorry, abiogenesis, just the beginning, the beginning of life, so that the transition, the proposed transition from nonliving matter to the first life.

Jim:

Michael, how would you answer that same question?

Peterson:

Well, a lot of it depends on the kind of independence or the kind of interaction that we think of regarding science and religion.

Jim:

Explain that a little. 

Peterson:

Well, the kind of, in, for example, we say, well, they’re independent. Totally true. Their methods are largely distinct. The subject matters are largely distinct. And their aims are largely distinct as disciplines. Science, and instead of religion, let’s say theology, which, right, tightens things up a little bit. Because that’s more of the self-conscious and deliberate articulation of beliefs about God and so on. Systematizing drawing out their implications. So I think that the, if the independence is meant to be a strict wall of separation, like Steve Gould suggested, I think that’s mistaken. That they’re just two totally separate enterprises and nothing at all in common. One is objective, one is subjective, all the things Steve Gould said a couple of decades ago. But if you say, their independence is just in their method and their aims and their subject matter, then the kind of interaction, yes, they’re independent, but there’s still interaction possible, because in my view, Christian theology provides a frame, a worldview frame for the kind of world science exists in, and for the practice of science, like it does provide a frame for tons of other things, our moral life, our common life together, lots of thing. So for me, the most fruitful interaction is between worldviews. And it’s not so much that science conflicts with Christianity, when it’s just science, but when it’s co-opted by philosophical naturalism and atheism, and there, as an ally, then it’s really the Christian worldview that’s the real alternative. So the interaction between Christian worldview, and science is largely a framing issue, although science can tutor and educate the Christian theologian. But they’re not on the same level. Like if they have interaction, it’s not because we’re putting beads on a string, and they’re like equal things, we’re just linking them together on a string. That’s not the way to look at it. It’s to look at the different kinds of intellectual activity, that theology is, versus science. And to see science and everything else in God’s world in its proper place. So for me, that’s the, that’s where I spend a lot of my time working. That’s the most fruitful interaction. Although I’m very much aware that those who don’t see things this way, come up with a much more biblicistic tradition, which may have tendencies toward biblical literalism. And they think of the interaction in totally different ways.

[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

Jim: 

Well, let’s push in a little further to the theory of evolution and see what kind of conversation we can have about it regarding some of these issues you just brought up. So the science of evolution has been one of the mainstays in the dialogue on science and faith. And for us at BioLogos, certainly, Dennis, one of the one of the battle lines, I guess, in the origin wars, if I may use the metaphor, has been even how to describe the theory of evolution. Is it a theory? Is it a theory in crisis, as evolution critics often like to say? Or maybe talk a little bit about what are the issues within the science itself that are settled beyond all reasonable doubt? And what are the open questions that not everyone agrees on? Or are active areas of research?

Venema:

You know, there’s this really good resource that somebody I know wrote for BioLogos, a number of years ago… 

Jim: 

We’ll have links in the show notes. 

Venema:

Yeah, no kidding. And you know what, I’m still quite happy with that piece and I think it has stood up. The idea, you know, what exactly is a, I think it’s that it’s also at the beginning of the Evolution Basics series as well, just this idea of, you know, what is a theory? Is it just a theory, what does the scientist mean, when they say theory as a well-tested, explanatory framework that has withstood repeated experimentation continues to be revised, and all that sort of thing. Science, you know, with any area of inquiry in science, there is always a core that is quite settled. And then from that core, scientists, of course, are very interested in building out from that core into the unknown. Scientists typically don’t spend a lot of time rehashing things that are very solidly supported. Scientists are always interested in using that base to say, Okay, if we know this now, how do we go out from that into things that we don’t know about? So the push from, you know, understanding evolutionary biology out towards abiogenesis like I was saying before, how did life begin? You know, that’s one area. The neuroscience issues we were just talking about is another good example. There’s some things about the brain that we know, you know, we’re quite, quite convinced of, and there’s lots of good evidence for, but then pushing that out to areas that we don’t know about as much. So that’s what science is interested in doing. But often with evangelicals, there’s sort of that confusion about, you know, oh, does that mean, if we don’t know every detail about how life began, does that mean that other areas of evolutionary biology are similarly that sort of, you know, tentative? And no, there’s that very solid core, and then there’s always the frontiers that you push to.

Jim:

So speak a little bit more specifically about evolutionary theory itself, where we have concepts like common ancestry, and then mechanisms by which common ancestry happens? And what are the, what are the elements of those that are that core you speak of? And where do, if we go to an evolutionary biology conference, what are people going to argue about specifically with regard to the evolutionary process?

Venema:

Sure. And that’s a really good example. And I think, yeah, you’re giving me a nice softball down the middle of the plate there.

Jim:

Teeing it up for you, man. 

Venema:

Exactly. So if you went to an evolutionary biology conference, no biologist there would be actively debating whether humans and chimpanzees for example, share a common ancestor. That is so solidly within the core, nobody’s even interested in talking about that anymore. Aside from just working from that to other interesting things. So like you say, mechanisms. You know, to what extent did natural selection drive the processes that gave us the differences? You know, how many of the differences were actually shaped by natural selection and selected for? How many of the differences are actually just the result of genetic drift, which is non-selected variation that just happened by stochastic processes to become prominent in these two different lineages? So how much of the difference is due to natural selection shaping things? How much of it is due just, just to non-selective processes? There, you might get an active discussion. But yeah, common ancestry? Nobody would even think about that.

Jim:

Let me ask one more thing to you, Dennis, about this. Boiling down the mechanism that’s at work, we obviously have to have some process by which variation occurs from parents to children, and some process by which certain of those children are going to reproduce more successfully than others. Is there debate on both of those? So you’ve talked about the natural selection a little bit of whether it’s sufficient in itself. What about the variation process? Are we only talking about random mutation of, of genes in the reproduction process? Or what else gets included in that discussion?

Venema:

Help me out with your question a bit here? Because I’m just curious, are you curious about, you know, is there any evidence for directed or non-random mutations?

Jim:

We’ll get to that in a little bit, but I’m just interested in whether random mutation is the only kind of driver.

Venema:

Yeah, ultimately, variation does come back to, or it’s sourced in, in DNA copying ‘errors,’ if you want to put that in scare quotes. But oftentimes, non-specialists think that the main driver of evolution, our new mut–, you know that it’s new mutations in this in the recent past that are suddenly driving change, and no. Recombination mixing and matching of previously existing variation, some of which may have cropped up, you know, a million years before, and now it’s in combination with other variation that was, you know, maybe 500,000 years old. And now it’s into a new combination that has a certain selective advantage in a given environment, you know. That sort of thing is, is something that most non-specialists don’t think about, but that those sorts of processes absolutely are a major shaper of how populations change over time.

Jim:

So in the like, the internet chat rooms that I’m sure we’re all so fond of, you sometimes hear people who, particularly people who are arguing against evolution, saying all it is is random genetic mutation plus natural selection, and there’s no way you could get this, you know, the tremendous amount of diversity of life we have out of just that. That’s, I think, sometimes called the Neo-Darwinian Synthesis, and people don’t always use these terms accurately, but is Neo-Darwinism in that sense still the sort of accepted consensus among evolutionary biologists or does it include more mechanism than just that?

Venema:

There’s, again, there’s a gradient here of how different biologists think about it. One sort of, broad camp would be to say, as we’ve learned more, we’ve added to the Neo-Darwinian synthesis. And it happily incorporates those new things. There are other biologists who argue for a more discontinuous kind of approach. They say, Oh, you know, evolution needs a big rethink. And these processes that Darwin didn’t know about, we need to incorporate them more fulsomely into bi– into evolutionary biology, I tend to be more on the, it’s a gradient and evolution as it is developed in the 20th century and now beyond that, it readily brought on board these new discoveries. So the idea that of neutral theory, you know, of a large amount of change genetically in populations over time is not due to natural selection. That would be one sort of key example of something that has been added on as we found out that that was a major driver. But I don’t see that as discontinuous with the ideas of Darwin or the Neo-Darwinian Synthesis. Other biologists take a different view and say, Oh, that’s really different. And we need to give different language about that. But I think it kind of ends up being angels on the head of a pin sometimes.

Jim:

Then another aspect of evolution that’s often misunderstood and misrepresented is the role of chance, Dennis, how do evolutionary scientists understand chance and its place in the process of evolution?

Venema:

Hmm, good question. Yeah, that random word is often a bugbear, eh? So when a biologist says mutations are random, what she is saying is, it is, the mutations are not correlated with the needs of the organism. She is not saying that all possible, sort of, mutational states are equally probable. She is not saying that these are without purpose, you know, teleologically, or philosophically. It’s a biological description that says, organisms- we have not yet seen organisms generate mutations that are correlated with their needs. So random with respect to function, random with respect to fitness, is the way that a biologist would talk about that.

Jim: 

When you say that purpose or teleological language might come in there, do you mean, the sort of popular level of discussion of evolution we might hear where somebody could say “the ancestors of whales lost their legs so that they could swim more efficiently? Or that homo sapiens developed language so that they could communicate more effectively?” Yeah, what’s the “so that” in those kinds of explanations doing?

Venema:

Yeah, it’s always interesting to me how difficult it is for biologists to avoid that kind of language, because that is just the world we live in. And it’s the way we talk. And there have been occasionally calls from within biology to try to avoid that kind of language. Because it is misleading, biologically. So yeah, that “so that” right? I guess part of the problem there is it’s just really clumsy to be, to have to give the full biological description of what actually went down right to say, you know, as the popular you know, over time average characteristics shifted in response to this selection. You know, it’s just, it’s faster to say “so that.” Yeah. So yeah, it’s, but that is a very pop- a very common misconception of evolution among non scientists that you know, that organisms… 

Jim:

Are striving to become something else. 

Venema:

Yeah, exactly. 

Jim:

The necks of giraffes are reaching to get those higher leaves. And that’s why they grow longer. 

Venema:  

Yeah, exactly. 

Jim:

Let me ask this a slightly different way and perhaps more philosophically, and Michael will want to chime in here because there’s no doubt that there is some directionality to evolution, right? Creatures have become more complex over time, from single cells to multi cells, prokaryotes to eukaryotes, asexual reproduction to sexual and levels of sociality and brain complexity and all that. But directionality is different than teleology as though this were goal-oriented in some sense.

Peterson:

Well, that certainly is a debate. And I don’t have the final verdict settled in my own mind. But I do think directionality even de facto directionality, not believing that there’s a force driving it like Herbert Spencer did, you know, that’s social Darwinism. And Darwin himself said he couldn’t stomach that. That really evolution, I think Dennis would agree, evolution is not a process in the sense of being a force, a power, a drive, nothing like that. It is what de facto happens. And if you have characteristics that help you survive, you’re gonna, you’re simply going to be able to reproduce more of your genetic material. And if you don’t survive, you’re not going to reproduce. So it’s, I think it’s a hard thing for a lot of laity to realize we’re not talking about evolution in biology as a force or a drive in any dynamic sense. And yet, it does look like if we chart out where we’ve come from, there has been some kind of directionality. I personally ascribe teleology to that. In a universe where an intelligent, good, loving, social, God wills that finite creatures in his image come forth. He’s very patient, over almost 4 billion years of evolution. But they did come forth, eventually. And we can chart that progress and say, This is amazing. That’s a worldview comment. And the naturalist looks at it and wants to say, well, improbable as it is, it just simply is chance and it’s meaningless. And there’s where we have our debate.

Jim:

So in your view, though, Michael, it’s fair to say that God intended for these creatures who bear God’s image, us human beings, God intended these creatures to come about.

Peterson:

Yes, that’s Christian orthodoxy. So if one is a Christian, understands that intellectually, then you can’t you can’t deny that. But the mechanism, the process by which it comes about is certainly not prescribed, not in theology and not in the Bible.

Jim: 

Dennis, what do you think about that?

Venema:

That’s a great question. Yes, I believe God intended creatures that he could relate to and bestow His image on. I’m very flexible on the level of determinism that was part of that process. And that’s where you sort of have the pub conversation and chew the fat.

Jim:

Did we have to have five fingers on each hand, for example? Or could that have been different? What are the, what are the necessary sorts of things that would need to emerge from this evolutionary process in order for us to be what God intended?

Peterson:

Yeah. And clearly, the human form is not the image of God, you know, the image of God we’ve always taken to be, rationality and morality, soulishness. So there’s nothing particularly sacrosanct that we had to be looking exactly this way with exactly these features.

Jim:

But on even the form side, how does convergent evolution play into this conversation? Dennis, maybe you can explain what convergent evolution is and why that’s relevant.

Venema:

Yeah, it’s a nice segue, because my thoughts that I’m thinking about the previous question are connected to that, as you’re probably thinking too. I sort of see, like when you say intentionality, I sort of see various niches like various manners of life and ways to have, you know, successful reproduction. I think what draws and pulls evolution along is the availability of those different niches. And the main evidence for that, of course, is convergent evolution. Here, if your listeners are interested, Simon Conway Morris is the go-to here. Life Solution is an excellent read. But the idea that the availability of these different niches which of course are bounded and set up by the parameters of the physical world in some way, actually in large way, that they pull variation in populations into those niches. So is there a niche on the planet for an organism like us? Yes, absolutely. Here we are. And we’ve and we’ve been very biologically successful in this niche. You know, other organisms… 

Jim:

Conway Morris goes so far as to say inevitable humans in a, right? He thinks that this was going to happen just from the laws of evolution? Could we say that?

Venema:

Yeah, or, just, yeah, like, but you know, the idea that it only happened once is, I think, another interesting conversation. It’s an awfully big stage for such a small drama. But not that it’s small, but you get the idea. The, yeah, just that those different, available niches become places of fruitfulness for different variation and different populations. And the idea that God longs for that diversity to come into being, that it’s not just about one thing or a few things, but there’s this glorious diversity that is, is welcomed and intended and encouraged, because of the way things have been set up, the way, the way the natural world has been patterned, that the earth literally brings forth, you know, to echo that language from Genesis, that the earth, is-, not that I’m seeing a crass concordism there. But you know, the idea that that’s a very interesting way to create. It’s a very… I can see, I can see a lot of beauty in that. I think Darwin saw beauty in that to at the end of Origin of the Species where he was kind of having that philosophical moment. And yeah, and I see that as very consistent with a Christian theistic perspective.

Jim:

Michael, any thoughts on convergence?

Peterson:

Well, I think largely along the same lines as Dennis, I do believe it’s interesting to try to map out the discussion in terms of how people think of the roles and the levels of chance. And how some folks are very threatened by the concept of chance. And yet, it’s a very essential element in the theory of evolution. And, insofar as evolution has highly confirmed, then we know, the kinds of chance it requires, are a part of the world. And we have to make sense of that as Christian thinkers. So I know at my church it is not uncommon to hear somebody say, I don’t believe in chance, I believe in God. Because they think that chance is in our atheist, and naturalist parts of our culture, chance is identified with being ultimate, there’s no God, and so they’re competitors. And they’re incompatible. But to think, is there a theistic and Christian understanding of the world, which makes room for chance? Just considered as different forms of non-determined contingencies at all sorts of levels, from the quantum level to genetic mutations. Do we not have a Christian and theistic ability to address that and provide a framework for that? I think that’s one of the big deficiencies in the discussion on the part of the religious folks who are still working with a lot of false dichotomies, as are the folks on the other side.

Jim:

Yep. Good. Okay, well, there are lots of other topics at the intersection of biology, philosophy, and religion that are interesting, at least to me, but we’re running out of time here. I’d like, though, if we could to tease a few more of those that are covered in your book, perhaps as an incentive for people to buy it. So maybe we can think of this as the lightning round, and limit you to just a couple of sentences each in answer to some of these very provocative questions. Number one, do humans differ from other animals in kind or only in degree? Dennis, you get to go first. 

Venema:

Oh, man, you’re asking me all the gradient questions.

Jim:

At least you see all questions as a gradient question, right?

Venema:

There you go. By the book, I don’t know. What we see in humans, it’s an open question in biology, from a biological perspective. Do we see things in humans that are unique, that are different in kind from other organisms? And there’s good conversation there. Religiosity might be one of those. Altruism is one of those. There’s a chapter in the book on that. And yeah, I’ll leave it there. 

Jim:

You’ve done a good job at re-stating my question. I’m not sure I got much more out of you than that. Michael, your turn?

Peterson:

I frankly, think in biology, the answer’s yes, that we differ in degree in so many ways. And that’s what’s confusing and leads to the conclusion, that’s all there is. That’s the only way we’re different from animals is purely in degree, we’re more complex. And so on. But when we look at the idea of let’s say, emergent properties, mind, or moral sense, these are vastly beyond our closest ancestor. Or our closest-related cousins, among the primates, vastly. And so there’s, there’s something to be said, for the concept of emergence, even within biology, that things in certain configurations, material things, may give off properties that were not predictable from looking at the parts.

Jim:

Alright, question number two, is DNA properly seen as code? Or information? Maybe Michael goes first on this one? 

Peterson:

You know, I’d like to defer to Dennis on that one.

Jim:

All right, Dennis, you get to give the whole answer.

Venema:

No. And if people are interested, I have, it’s a number of years old now, but I had quite an exchange with Stephen Meyer, intelligent design proponent, on that issue. I argue quite strongly that no, DNA is not a code. That’s a good analogy, because it helps us work with it. But it is not to be taken literally.

Jim:

All right. Last lightning round question, does evolution make the problem of evil more difficult, Dennis?

Venema:

In my years with sitting with this topic, I haven’t yet found something in evolution that exacerbates that problem. To my, to my understanding, no.

Jim:

Michael?

Peterson:

Well if it’s the hardest of all problems, it’s hard to see how you can make it worse than it already is. But anyway, I think it’s more like, it adds a dimension, it adds a certain twist. There are many dimensions and many twists to the very complicated problem of evil, a very difficult problem. But you think about what kind of religious base you’re talking about, particularly if you have a religious view that evil in terms of suffering and pain and death and predation, occurred only after the human fall. Well, it’s going to make the problem of evil for that religious person pretty difficult. To find out that pain and predation and death have been in the animal world before there were ever humans. On the other hand, if you’re an Orthodox Christian, you kind of approach it more abstract, theological terms, I still think it adds a dimension, but it’s not quite the threat. And you just simply say it might, as I would, that, this seems to be a wonderful world, a good world, a good kind of world, that a good God created. But it is a strange world, where not just materiality, but physicality, in terms of living biological organisms could come forth and feel pleasure, touch each other, be bonded with one another, all sorts of great things. But the other side of that kind of existence is that it’s also subject to pain and suffering. Remember that it’s that kind of existence that God himself in the second person took on in first century Jesus of Nazareth. He embraced it into himself.

Jim: 

Well, let’s use that as a transition to a conclusion here. We’ve been talking about some pretty heady stuff. And maybe each of you might address a more practical or even pastoral question in conclusion, which is, why is this important? Maybe not everybody needs to be deeply engaged in wrestling through these issues. But could you give a little defense for why it’s important, maybe even of ultimate importance for the kingdom of God, that some people are wrestling with such questions. Dennis?

Venema:

Well, Jim, you know that this is something that has driven me for a long time. It drove my work with BioLogos. continues to drive the work and thinking that I do. Yeah. It’s, like you say, it’s not something that everybody’s going to struggle with. But for those that do struggle with it, having access to good, reliable information, and knowing that you’re not alone, is a big part of it. And also, yeah, if we want to be winsome, and showing the fullness of the kingdom of God to those who are not yet a part of it, you know, having bad science, having bad philosophy, having bad apologetics, it’s a non-starter. So yeah, and that critique needs, I fully believe that that critique primarily needs to come from within.

Jim:

Michael, you get the last word.

Peterson:

Yes, I think I would start out by saying that, as a Christian and as a theist, all truth, wherever we find it, is God’s truth. And it’s not all just in the Bible. And that rational activity that expresses itself in the different disciplines can give us a lot of truths that are all part of God’s universe. And we do need a holistic understanding of how all these truths go together. So I’m not afraid of the truths in science that we’re learning. I’m not afraid of the truths in biology. But I do believe that for the believing Christian, the sincere Christian who wants to not only make a difference in the world, but also to understand their own faith and belief more fully, this is a great discussion, an important discussion. And that they should not have so much threat or fear, but in a way, express Christian humility, before well-earned scientific truth. And that would be a Christian virtue. So it’s not that we can’t say anything to science, if we want to ask questions of science. But it’s not like in a wholesale way we need to be at war with science. We need a holistic, harmonious Christian understanding of how it all goes together.

Jim:

Good. Well, the book is called Biology, Religion and Philosophy: An Introduction, recently released on Cambridge University Press. I highly recommend it. And I’m grateful for the two of you for talking to us about it. Thanks so much. 

Peterson:

Thank you. 

Venema:

Thanks, Jim.

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 guests

Dennis Venema

Dennis Venema

Dennis Venema is professor of biology at Trinity Western University in Langley, British Columbia. He holds a B.Sc. (with Honors) from the University of British Columbia (1996), and received his Ph.D. from the University of British Columbia in 2003. His research is focused on the genetics of pattern formation and signaling using the common fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster as a model organism. Dennis is a gifted thinker and writer on matters of science and faith, but also an award-winning biology teacher—he won the 2008 College Biology Teaching Award from the National Association of Biology Teachers. He and his family enjoy numerous outdoor activities that the Canadian Pacific coast region has to offer.
Michael Peterson

Michael L. Peterson

Michael Peterson is Professor of Philosophy of Religion as Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. He has authored numerous books on topics of science and religion and launched the journal Faith and Philosophy which he edited for 37 years.

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