The evolution of a perspective on Creation and origins

CJSH.name/origins

Adapted from a mailing list post. I’ve still left it as clunky as when it was first written.

In the interests of providing a fuller picture, and perhaps letting other list members understand why I hold a perspective that seems hard to explain in someone who has given thought to the question, I have decided to give an account of how I came to my present position. A serious attempt at representing the cases for and against different perspectives — even the case for my own perspective — is beyond the scope of this letter; I intend to state, without tracing out in detail, my present perspective, but not to give arguments beyond a scant number without which the plot would be diminished. That stated, I am attempting, to the best of my ability, to write with the kind of honesty Feynman describes in “Cargo Cult Science” [in his memoirs Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman]— not a selective account of facts designed to optimize persuasive effect, but (after combing through my memory) as comprehensive an explanation as I can provide without reproducing arguments, one that includes details that will hurt my persuasive impact every bit as much as those that would advance whatever facade I might expect to hold the most compelling influence. I am attempting to place chronological events in chronological order, explicitly noting the exceptions. If there are relevant details (‘relevant’ from the perspective of any side of the debate, not just my own) that are not reproduced here, it’s because I couldn’t find them after looking for them.

My earliest remembered belief, from childhood, was of a six day young-earth creationist view. I read from the Bible, and I think I read some conservative Christian children’s material, although I can’t remember what; I don’t remember it explicitly arguing for a young-earth view so much as assuming it, and warning readers about hostile science teachers when it came to evolution. My father (who holds a doctorate in physics and teaches computer science at Wheaton College) believes in an old earth, but has not (so far as I know) committed to details of theories of the origin of life in a sense that would interest a biologist; in a discussion a year or two ago, I remember him responding to Wheaton’s President’s perspective that some origins questions are purely exegetical by saying, “Science is ahuman discipline; theology is a human discipline.” (I would not put things that way exactly, but I am providing it as an example of the situation I grew up in.) I don’t specifically remember my mother saying anything about origins questions. The only time during my childhood I can recall a Christian adult trying to influence my thought about origins-related questions was when I looked at my Bible, which had a timeline of different figures and events in the Jewish lineage, with estimated years for different people, and then at the far left had the Creation, the Fall, and some other event (I think the Flood or the Tower of Babel), for which no estimated date was given. Assuming a linear relationship between position on the timeline and time, I extrappolated a date for Creation, and my Sunday School teacher tried to explain to me that I couldn’t do that, that that wasn’t using the figure properly. I don’t know what she believed about origins questions, just that she tried to dissuade me from misreading a timeline. At any rate, my beliefs congealed after I had enough mental maturity to understand the details of the Genesis 1 account, and before I had serious contact with scientific findings or with the Biblical-theological case that the natural order is subject to legitimate exploration and discovery.

Sometime in middle to late childhood — I think before eighth grade, but I’m not positively sure — I read a long Christianity Today article about origins questions, following a “four views” format. I remember that theistic evolution was included, and that one of the respondents was Pattle Pun, a biologist at Wheaton; I have vague, inconclusive rememberances that one perspective was progressive creation, and that one of them might have been six day, young-earth creationism, but I’m not sure on either of the last two accounts. After reading it, my beliefs began to shift. I don’t remember exactly what I believed when the process of shifting was going on; to fast forward a bit, I do remember the resting point they came to and stayed for quite a while. It was a theistic evolution account, drawing on quantum uncertainty and chaos theory, and intermittently including a belief in distinctly supernatural punctuations to equilibrium. Ok, end of fast-forward; back to chronological order.

In eighth grade (I was attending Avery Coonley School, a private magnet school for the gifted), the yearlong biology course was taught by Dr. John A. Rhodes, a biologist and the school headmaster, a man for whom I hold fond memories. Early in the course, Dr. Rhodes made a very emphatic point that we should tell people at prospective high schools that we were taught from BSCS Blue, which was widely recognized as the best biology text to be taught from (I believe it to have probably been a high school text; math, at least, was broken into one year advanced and two years advanced). I don’t have independent confirmation on this claim, and perhaps a teacher who wanted to de-emphasize molecular biology in favor of other branches of biology might have preferred another text, but he was very emphatic that the text was what I would call the biological equivalent of an O’Reilly technical book.

When it came to the beginning of the chapter on evolution, Dr. Rhodes commented that he was always interested in hearing new theories on questions of origins, and I wrote him a letter stating what I believed at the time. He thanked me, and a couple of class periods later told me that he’d enjoyed reading it. I was preparing for a battle of wills, and found nothing of the sort; I doubt if he believed anything similar to what I believed (before or after), but he provided an open atmosphere and encouraged inquiry.

Some time (I have difficulty dating this as well, but it appears to have been after I was first exposed to serious arguments for believing in something besides young-earth creationism, probably after eighth grade biology, and before my beliefs came to a theistic evolution attractor in high school) I was browsing at the library — not looking for anything specific, just trying to find something interesting and stimulating to read. I found a book from the Creation Research Institute, and read with interest the back cover, which stated that it explained powerful scientific evidence that showed that the world was created in six days, a few thousand years ago. This was exactly what I was looking for. I checked it out and started reading it.

I didn’t get a quarter of the way through.

I was disgusted by what the book presented as arguments and evidence; however much I might have liked to have something I could claim scientific evidence for my young-earth beliefs, I didn’t want it that badly. (Reading that book was part of why I had no reservations in putting Creation Science in front of my “If it has ‘science’ in its name, it probably isn’t” list.)

I skipped freshman year, and entered the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy as a sophomore. (For those of you not familiar with IMSA, it’s a high-powered magnet school; a master’s degree is required to teach, and several times the senior class has gotten the highest average ACT score in the nation. When I went to Wheaton, I was able without difficulty to start off in 300-400 level courses, and I was puzzled as to why so many people had warned me about college being tougher than high school.) There was a lecture by Dr. Pine (staff scientist; didn’t teach any classes) on science and pseudo-science, one that was abrasively naturalistic, and began by saying “It’s OK not to be a scientist; George Washington wasn’t a scientist,” but later parts of which would only make sense under an assumption that science has a monopoly on legitimate inquiry into those questions it concerns itself with (or something equivalent for discussion purposes). His name was a symbol of arrogant scientism even among those who weren’t familiar with the scientism/science distinction, and I remember (when talking about the lecture with an aquaintance) my friend commenting that there were a lot of people offended by that lecture. The lecture wasn’t focally concerned with origins questions, Dr. Pine having focused more of his attack on things like ESP, but I wanted to include this in the record.

Senior year, we had university biology; it wasn’t an AP course in that it wasn’t geared towards the AP tests, but it was a college-level course. I don’t remember the text for this one, but (under the circumstances) I think it was about as competently taught, by people who knew what they were talking about, as one could reasonably guess. (This was after my belief had settled.)

At Wheaton, my Old Testament class covered a few exegetical theories on interpreting the beginning of Genesis (i.e. the gap theory, which says that the Genesis chronologies are accounts with significant gaps), albeit not in a manner that would be interesting to a biologist; they would be equally compatible (or incompatible) with Darwinian and Lamarckian evolution. I remember in particular the time given to the Ten Plagues in Israel’s deliverance from Egypt; massive energy was given to a forced interpretation that would reconcile the Biblical account with an explanation that a materialist could easily swallow (i.e. the water turned to blood was an explosive bloom of some sort of reddishly colored micro-organism in the waterways), and I would rather that the teacher have said, “The ten miraculous plagues are too much for me to swallow,” than “I will rescue the ten miraculous plagues by explaining how they were ten ordinary disasters that weren’t miraculous at all.” (Readers may perceive a degree of intellectual dishonesty in my own version of theistic evolution; such an accusation probably has some degree of truth to it, but I will not try to address it here.) This, and the other two classes mentioned below for completeness, did not alter my perspective so far as I remember.

I took an environmental science elective, and the course material made sporadic reference to evolution (for that matter, one video began with a beautiful quotation from a Biblical psalm about the wonder of the natural order), but neither the teacher nor the texts made a serious attempt to address origins questions, being much more concerned with explaining (part of) how the environment works, and how to be a responsible citizen minimizing unnecessary environmental degradation.

The last class I am mentioning for the sake of completeness of record is my philosophy of science class. Evolution was discussed in so far as the history of scientists accepting the theory is interesting to a philosopher of science; there were no arguments made for or against it, apart from a brief comment in a discussion where one student used the acceptance of Darwinian evolution as an example of a good decision on the part of the scientific community.

To wrap up this part of the discussion, I transferred out of Wheaton for reasons of conscience, and finished up my bachelor’s at Calvin, and did a master’s in applied mathematics at the University of Illinois. I did not have occasion to revise my beliefs concerning origins questions until some time later, and to properly explain exactly what opened up the question again, I need to give a little more background.

There was one Saturday Night Live where the news announcer said, “Michael Bolton just came out with his new Christmas album. [Pause] Happy birthday, baby Jesus! I hope you like crap!”

Being somewhat aloof from pop culture, it took me the longest time to get it through my head that Michael Bolton was not a Christian artist. By that point, I had written in my dictionary:

Christian Contemporary Music, n. A genre of song designed primarily to impart sound teaching, such as the doctrine that we are sanctified by faith and not by good taste in music.

One thing that has distressed me to no end is that much of today’s Christian culture (popular sense, not anthropological sense) is garbage. What Dante and Handel produced is cherished on artistic merits by people openly hostile to their beliefs; the same cannot be said for the contents of John’s Christian Bookstore. I don’t want to analyze historical causes or implications, but it is something I find to be quite embarrassing — and one of the reasons I spend so much time on writing, namely to be one person who produces Christian art that is not trash.

At any rate, there was one point where I was browsing the web, searching for provoking Christian musings — and wading through one banal, syrupy, intellectually juvenile posting after another. I was quite bored, and kept searching long after I should have given up — and then read an article entitled, “Abortion: A Failure to Communicate”, and sat there, stunned.

The article made an argument why, from a pro-life perspective, it is not helpful to say “Save the children!”, argue that a foetus is a child rather than unwanted tissue, or erect a place called “New Life Adoption Center”. The particular argument (or even issue) is not why I was stunned. I was stunned because the article represented an intellectually mature, nuanced, and insightful perspective, and raised points that made sense but which were not at all obvious trivialities. Once I got over being stunned, I poked around and found out a bit more about the site hosting it — an anthology site called Leadership University at www.leaderu.com. In the following days, I looked around and found a number of stimulating articles.

After reading a while — and enjoying it thoroughly — I paid attention to something I had not previously looked at, that the site had a science section. That seemed somewhat strange; I wasn’t surprised at sections for humanities disciplines, as thinking Christianly makes a big difference in the humanities, but why science? My Dad shared both faith and enjoyment of heavily mathematical disciplines (math, computer science, physics) with me, but he had never hinted at what e.g. “Christian physics” would mean — nor had anyone else I knew of — so I clicked on the link to find out what on earth the site listed as a distinctively Christian way to think about science.

My estimation of the site dropped by about ten notches when I saw a list of titles attacking Darwinism. So this otherwise serious and intellectually responsible site had stooped to host Creation Science. I left the computer in disgust.

Some time after that, I began to experience quiet, nagging doubts — doubts that I was not being fair to Leadership University or even to those articles by dismissing them (and assessing penalty points) without consideration. I could see no justification for stooping to Creation Science, for trying to rehash a battle that was decided and over, but at the same time, there was no other point at which I had looked at the site and regretted taking the time to read an article. If a friend (whom I had hitherto known to be trustworthy) were to say something I found hard to believe, wouldn’t I consider him to have earned the benefit of the doubt? So I went back to the computer, expecting to read more Creation Research Institute-style materials, and met with yet another surprise.

I expected to see an attack on Darwinism. I hoped (but did not expect) to instead see something that would live up to Leadership University article standards. What I found was an attack on Darwinism that lived up to Leadership University article standards, and it produced a lot of cognitive dissonance in me.

Some years before, I might have jumped at an argument that Darwinism was seriously flawed. Not now. Darwinian evolution was a part of my education, and (if I did not go into naturalism) an argument that Darwinism was much more flawed than I had been led to believe, affected me as would an argument that any other major scientific theory was much more flawed than I had been led to believe — it had some very troubling implications. So I looked through several articles, hoping to find a fatal flaw — and the hope waned.

I was not open to resolving the question based on the online articles, but the articles disturbed me enough that I very distinctly believed that there was a question in need of resolution. So, not too much longer, I poked around until I found Philip Johnson’s Darwin on Trial and, a bit later, Michael Behe’s Darwin’s Black Box, hoping to find justification to persist in my previous belief, but even more hoping to resolve the inner tension between believing (and wanting to believe) one thing, and seeing evidence that appeared to suggest another.

Reading Darwin on Trial fleshed out what was sketched in the articles. (Darwin on Trial took me an afternoon to read, and I am probably not a fast reader by Megalist standards; Darwin’s Black Box took me a day.) The articles, at least at Leadership University, do not provide what I would consider a basis to decide; they outline the argument, but the length restriction makes it hard to make an argument without holes. The book, on the other hand, had the room to argue systematically and carefully. Its arguments were sufficient to dislodge me from the resting place I had found, and the best metaphor I can use to describe the subsequent sifting of thoughts is a loss of faith.

In a conservative Catholic family, perhaps pre-Vatican II, a child grows up to believe that if the priests say it, speaking officially, it is true — perhaps there is room for miscommunication and the like, but there is a basic faith that the mouth of a priest is the mouth of an oracle. In a contemporary scientific schooling context, a student is taught to believe that if the science teachers say it, it is a bona fide attempt to convey the truth as best understood by the scientific enterprise. There are any number of basic nuances — miscommunication, error, intentional simplification for any of several obvious reasons, the teacher articulating the views of one position in a controversy — but, as with the Catholic family, there is a basic faith (even if it’s not put that way, a mistrust of faith and authority being one of the items on the catechism) that the teacher represents the best science can offer, and so (for instance) if evolution is portrayed as an established theory that explains reasonably well everything one would expect it to explain, then that must be true.

It is that faith which I lost.

There is one example that particularly sticks in my mind. I am not going to call it ‘typical’, with the accompanying implication that I could easily pull half a dozen other examples that serve my point equally well; there are a number of other examples, and this is the one made the most forceful impression on me.

One example that occurred in both my textbooks — as best I recall, they both had photographs to illustrate camouflage effects — concerns pepper moths in England. Before the Industrial Revolution, the majority of pepper moths were white, with a significant minority that were black. Come the Industrial Revolution, when everything was blackened by soot, the proportions shifted, so that the majority of pepper moths were black, with a significant minority that were white. Then, after the Industrial Revolution had run its course and things were no longer covered with soot, the proportions again shifted, so that the majority of pepper moths were white, with a significant minority of black moths. This is given as a supporting example of “evolution”.

Johnson does not treat “evolution” as one amorphous mass; he regards the distinction between microevolution and macroevolution as significant, including that evidence of one is not necessarily evidence of the other. Neither he nor anyone else I’ve read challenge microevolution (or the existence of natural selection as an influence on what survives — though he suggests that natural selection is a conservative force). What is specifically challenged is macroevolution, and whether natural selection constitutes a generative force that is responsible for the diversity of life now on this planet.

The pepper moth example shows natural selection in action; what it does not show is that natural selection is a creative force that causes new kinds of organisms to appear. If black pepper moths were unknown before the Industrial Revolution, and then (once the smoke started billowing) a mutation (one that hadn’t occurred, or at least hadn’t survived, before) introduced a black gene into a previously all-white pool, and the new kind of moth started to take over for as long as trees were covered with soot — then this would constitute a small-scale instance of evolution as a generative force. As it is, both kinds of moths existed before, during, and after the Industrial Revolution, in significant numbers — nothing even went extinct (at least in the pepper moth population). This provides evidence of natural selection in some form, but to present it as evidence of “evolution” is presenting evidence of one claim as evidence of two or more distinct claims, at least one of which is not supported by the evidence — a practice that is, at best, sloppy, and at worst, deceitful.

(This one claim, by itself, is not fatal; it would be in principle possible to present a collection of examples so that natural selection, microevolution, and macroevolution all have their corresponding support; I am not presenting it to establish a case so much as to illustrate a picture.)

My disappointment at my teachers’ presentation of undue optimism about macroevolution was not nearly as significant as my own disappointment at myself, and my having believed it. Perhaps it would have been easier to merely be angry at my teachers, but I was not angry; my chief disappointment was with myself.

After I had to some extent regained my bearings, I read Darwin’s Black Box, which provided one major new concept not addressed by Darwin on Trial, and several examples of that concept (irreducible complexity), and started talking about it on IMSA alumni notesfile forums.

What I saw there was, for the most part, shock and outrage that anyone dare question Darwin’s truth — most ridiculed what I was saying without providing counter-argument; one person, when I discussed the Cambrian explosion, suggested that it could have been caused by mutagen exposure. Mutagen exposure is a hypothesis I’m willing to entertain (stranger things have happened), but when I started doing some Feynman calculations to show how astronomically low the odds are of mutagen exposure producing Cambrian explosion effects, after first saying, “Suppose I claim to be able to predict lottery numbers, and suppose for the sake of argument you can rule out charlatan trickery on my part. After one success, I have your attention. After two successes, you say, ‘What a bizarre coincidence!’ Is there any number of successful guesses (subject to one guess per minute and an assumption of my death in fifty years) that will lead you to believe that you may not know how I’m doing it, but it’s not luck?” — and he said that at most a dozen would suffice, and then I showed how much lower the chances of raw mutagen exposure producing the Cambrian explosion would be than the chance of successfully guessing twelve consecutive lottery numbers — at which point he backed up and said, “There are some things we can never know.”

The one exception was a microbiology graduate student. He read the arguments I drew from the other sources, and commented that I seemed well-read and that the arguments seemed plausible. Part of that is being diplomatic, but I don’t think it was diplomatic politeness covering disrespect or distaste — he didn’t want to commit to a position without first taking an unhurried investigation of the question (which I didn’t want to do either — the web articles didn’t convince me of any conclusion besides that I should read the unabridged take on them).

What is my present position? Let me list a few things that I presently hold, subject to revision if and when I encounter further evidence or indications that my past analysis is less valid than I thought:

  • Old earth/universe.
  • Microevolution as a consistent force in our time and probably at ages past, probably a conservative force.
  • Sudden appearance and disappearance of species, such as has not been accounted for in evolutionary theory so far as I know (perhaps acknowledged in punctuated equilibrium, but not accounted for — saying that changes happen off camera in 100,000 year geological eyeblinks, without explaining why, doesn’t constitute a valid theory).
  • Irreducible complexity in living organisms due to intelligent design, and in many cases not explained by any known plausible evolutionary scenario.

This is not a scientific theory so much as a framework, a partial specification; it represents a move away from naturalistic evolution as the complete answer and does not represent a fully detailed alternative — I think other people should work on that; I just haven’t invested in it myself. It is like, after having long believed a story about an event, coming to believe that the story is false — another explanatory story does not automatically spring up, although in a scientific community the rejection of one theory as flawed leads to the appearance of other theories to take its place, perhaps involving a shift in framework — witness the ultraviolet catastrophe. If I were a biologist working on a theory of origins, I would try to take this framework and extend it to the point of being a falsifiable theory —Darwin’s Black Box at the end addresses some issues towards constructing falsifiable theories, suggesting the sort of questions to ask in the process. There might be material to be mined in cryptanalysis; a codebreaker who sees a pattern is constantly asking whether the pattern represents a step towards cracking the code, or is only fool’s gold. The concept of p-values may be relevant.

[Remaining specific point, responding to other post, deleted for privacy concerns.]

-Jonathan

Post Script, May 5, 2003: Since I posted this some time back, I have learned that leading members of the MegaList have become increasingly involved in the Intelligent Design movement.

I do not believe I can take more than incidental credit for this; I believe they are persuaded, not by my eloquence in a small number of posts, but because the evidence itself suggests things which a purely Darwinian account has trouble explaining.

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