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Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Looking for a quick, eloquent explanation of evolution and common descent?

Thus far, I have not commented on topics that deal with biological evolution. As stated in my introductory article, my aim was to avoid the subject—not because it is controversial, but rather because it is beyond my expertise. Nonetheless, I wanted to share some reflections from my recent attempt to better grasp the subject. At the end of this article, I have linked a helpful video that discusses the genetic evidence for common descent, and human evolution in particular. Please, check it out!

Deciphering life's message in the rocks

As a geologist, I have a vested academic interest in biological evolution. For one, I have collected thousands of fossiliferous rock samples, and want to understand why specific fossil forms appear where they do in the rock record. And although I am not a paleontologist, these concepts do intercept with my primary disciplinary focus—biogeochemistry. To be succinct, the field of biogeochemistry studies how the chemical interaction of the oceans, atmosphere, rocks, and life have shaped the history of our planet. Why did mass extinctions occur? What caused periods of warming/cooling, and how did the planet respond? How did new organisms fill the niches left vacant by the 'victims' of oceanographic and atmospheric perturbations? When and how did oxygen fill the atmosphere and, conversely, when and how did carbon dioxide become depleted? Understanding the evolution of organisms is integral to every one of these questions when examined on long-term—or geologic—timescales.

For the most part, my schooling and research has only required a modest familiarity with evolutionary processes and the fossil record. In trying to publish my most recent research, however, I had to wrestle with questions about how the ecology of Earth's oceans would respond to a world of rising oxygen, falling carbon dioxide, an increase in major nutrient (phosphate/nitrate) availability, and a decrease in redox-sensitive nutrients (e.g. iron). In other words, how did organisms evolve to survive this dramatically changing world, and what kind of chemical (e.g. isotopic) record would they leave?

I apologize for thinking out loud here in jargon-ridden phrases, but I hope you can appreciate how the major sciences intertwine, and why I am pursuing a better understanding of evolutionary theory. Yes, I have taken basic biology courses and contributed to paleontological research, but these produced more questions than they answered.

Where next?

At the same time, I am aware of the controversy surrounding evolutionary theory in the mind of the general public, and particularly within the church. Personally, I do not have any objections to accepting biological evolution (on scientific or theological grounds), but I understand why many are skeptical of evolution in general, and why others are passionately opposed to accepting any part of it (let alone have it taught to their children!). Nonetheless, I find the emotionally driven, highly polarized 'non-discussion' that takes place between evolutionary biologists and their critics to be unfortunate at best, and childish at worst. Let me give you an example.

When I began my search, I purchased two best-sellers: The Greatest Show on Earth by Richard Dawkins, and Why Evolution is True by Jerry Coyne. Yes, some might call this 'pop-science' writing, and an unusual place for a graduate student to seek science lessons. But I simply wanted to know from the start: "What do the most outspoken proponents of evolutionary theory believe is the best evidence?"

In short, I enjoyed reading both books. Their arguments transitioned smoothly from one to the next in logical fashion. When I finished, I thought: "Yeah, that sounds good. This is a well established theory." But I also felt disappointed. I had learned a majority of these arguments already, either years ago in science class or—strangely enough—while browsing through creationist literature! At very few points in each book did I come away with "Aha!" moments in response to novel explanations or examples of the evidence. That being said, Dawkins' explanation of the 'arms race' of evolutionary ecology (the 'tall forests' example), sexual selection, and DNA's role in embryology/development (the 'origami' analogy) were superb—I recommend them to any enquiring student of biology.

Unfortunately, these rather enlightening chapters were prefaced by numerous, rhetorical 'cheap shots' at creationists and an error-ridden explanation of isotopes and radiometric dating. Initially, his major defense against creationism was to call it a product of dogmatism, ignorance, and stupidity. But when Dawkins' touched on subjects that fell under my own expertise—namely, isotope geochemistry—I found that his information was erroneously translated from secondhand sources. In other words, he was arrogantly promoting false information about a subject in which he had never conducted research, because he didn't know enough to correct the errors. Not surprisingly, Dawkins can't seem to figure out why the percentage of people that reject evolution continues to grow.

Don't stop now!

Despite my criticism of Dawkins' approach (and, vicariously, many of his colleagues) to promoting evolutionary theory, my words should not be taken as an ad hominem attack on his conclusions. The evidence for common descent and biological evolution is considerable—overwhelming in some areas—and must be dealt with by any competing theory (of which there are none, currently). But if anyone is interested in convincing the public of this fact (or the church, for that matter), one must learn to address people with respect, while anticipating objections and presenting evidence against those objections. No skeptic of evolution will be convinced by the evidence from comparative anatomy and genomics, for example, if they believe that the challenge of 'irreducible complexity' is insurmountable. No skeptic of human evolution (common descent with the great apes) will be convinced by physical and genetic similarities if they believe 'common design' provides a viable, alternative explanation. Even if Dawkins is correct about evolution, he is preaching to the choir while alienating a majority of his audience.

But there is hope...

Recently, I came across the YouTube series entitled "Can an Evangelical Christian Accept Evolution?" by Dennis Venema—a biologist/geneticist at Trinity Western University and Senior Fellow of the Biologos Foundation. After reading his recent, autobiographical article at Biologos, I decided follow up on his work. I am posting the first video below in hopes that you will watch the full series (12 videos). Personally, I have never seen a better explanation of the genetic evidence for evolution. He cites original studies and presents the original data (so you can follow up on your own), while articulating each argument in an easily understandable manner. Best of all, he is respectful to the audience, their questions, and common objections to the evidence. Please, enjoy.*

*For those of you that prefer a written explanation, Dr. Venema's presentation above is taken from a 2010 ASA article (PDF found here).


  1. Thank you for this timely piece.
    I do so agree that the "non-discussion" has descended to childish levels.
    If only we could turn debate in conversation perhaps we could all learn something instead of always trying to "win" the argument by scoring points off one another.
    I'm not qualified to comment on Prof Dawkins' knowledge of isotope geochemistry but his knowledge of theology is sadly limited in comparison with the remarks he makes about the subject, whether he speaks of Christian theology in particular or of theology in general.
    When addressing a general audience the YECs seem to show better manners.

  2. Nice entry. Looking forward to watching the series. (I appreciate your heart on this matter.) I think it's important for the church to seek the truth, not fear it, and to shine a light on this false God-of-the-gaps "worshiped" by YECs who are desperately dependent on God having created the world in six literal days.

  3. Brent,
    I think you just accomplished the same thing Jon was bemoaning in Dawkins' book. I am a YEC. I do not fear the truth. I love scientific study. I seek to expose the worship of false gods (or false views of God). You have presented a caricature. Your comment above seems to imply that I have no salvation in Christ because I am worshiping a "false God-of-the-gaps" (1 John 2:21-25). Did I misunderstand you?

    You did get one thing right . . . I am desperately dependent on a God who I trust created the world in six days.

  4. I think the most significant point in your post is that evidence generally does not convince people to abandon their core presuppositions. That is where the heart of the debate lies. Because I trust in a "simple" reading of Scripture (I can't use "literal" any more since you say you read it as literal, too;-)), I reject common descent and accept common design. As I have said before, you will have to convince me away from my understanding of Scripture before I can entertain an evolutionary model for the universe, the solar system, or the life on earth. That makes me dogmatic in Dawkins' mind--and in the minds of other Christians who join him in attacking biblical creationists.

  5. Roger,

    You are clearly NOT the kind of person I'm talking about. You don't seem to be accusing me of being less of a Christian because I recognize the process of evolution was wired into the universe by God. The YECs I'm speaking of most certainly would.

    I guess my question for you is, what happens when you realize evolution to be a reality? (Obnoxious question, I know, but your story sounds like part of mine; eventually, I realized the evidence for evolution was overwhelming and the YEC answers were thin or misrepresentative or otherwise flawed and definitely unsatisfying.) After all, you love scientific study and I trust you value science, as well. If your God is one who is the easy explanation for things that are difficult to explain or scientifically known, that is, if you are dependent on him being the explanation for those things and your faith rest in part on that dependence, then yes, you are being idolatrous.

    I don't doubt you worship the true and living God. But so did Israel. Their problem was giving part of their focus and attention (worship) to false gods.

    Your last statement is wonderful. But you give me too much credit. I DIDN'T get that right about you. Your focus is on God (yay!). My statement was about the YECs whose focus (the way I said it was "desperately dependent") on an interpretation. Everything, to them, seems to ride on that interpretation. I say they are treating that interpretation with godlike status, which makes it an idol.

    There is a definitie "if not this way, then no way" attitude that comes out of the AIGs and ICRs of the world. And for a long time, it tripped me up. I knew there was a problem with what they were saying, both scripturally and scientifically, but I became afraid to look much deeper less my faith be shredded. If they were right about it being "all or nothing", I sensed I was in trouble, because I could see the evidence for evolution becoming insurmountable. It sidelined me. It made me unproductive in my faith. But you know what? They (vocal YEC ministries) don't get to make that declaration. They don't get to decide that. I'm grateful to have found BioLogos and their frank discussions of matters of science and faith. I discovered other ways of interpreting the events of the first few chapters of Genesis that I was able to reconcile with Paul's use of Adam in his teaching about the nature and effects of sin and the need for Jesus. (As you probably know, this is a BIG hangup when it comes to interpreting Genesis 1 (and/or 2) as other than historical chronologies of actual events.)

    I know that most people don't really think about this much. But for people that do, to present one interpretation of Genesis 1-2 as a "have to" for Christianity is evil in the same way that idolatry is evil. It will lead people away from the church who could otherwise love Jesus with all their hearts. It puts people's focus and dependence (and a false importance) on God having done something a certain way that science is demonstrating He didn't do that way. And in the long run, it hurts the church.

  6. Roger,

    You mentioned common design vs. common descent. This is one of those YEC explanations that used to give me comfort when I was trying to maintain a literal-six-day understanding of Genesis. It was just enough information to appease my worried mind.

    The problem is, this kind of stuff keeps popping up. I noticed that YEC groups are always having to postulate and theorize and invent some new twist to help stave off the scientific explanation. I felt like a coward for not exploring the matters further. But when I did (and as I have) I've found the YEC apologists' approach suspect, and deeply dissatisfying.

    Watching the Dennis Venema videos (I'm on number 9) it's striking that the findings you'd expect from a common descent theory keep being confirmed. It's also striking how many layers there are to the genome findings. It's not just similar chromosomes, it's similar chromosomes that could be different and achieve the same function/purpose yet are the same. It's chromosomes, for the sense of smell, e.g., that are now inactive (but present...why if God created us from scratch on the spot) and the exact same ones are inactive in both chimps and humans.

    The YEC approach sort of immunizes itself; it doesn't have to predict anything because God is the simple answer. I think God is the answer, as well. It doesn't start without Him. The question is how it came to be. And the answers I hear from YEC groups don't align with what we're able to discover using the very abilities God, in his infinite creativity, wired the material world for us to develop.

  7. Just a quick question for Roger: if, according to creationism, similarities are evidence for common design, are differences evidence for different designers? I'm just trying to understand your thought process, here. How would you falsify common design?

  8. Roger, I agree that evidence may scarcely persuade. But the point I was trying to make is that many folks present evidence (e.g. chimp/human DNA) without addressing the common objections to that evidence (e.g. that common design is an equally valid explanation). In such a case, the skeptical listener can filter out the evidence, because they 'know' another explanation is out there.

    Anyways, I'm aware of your stance on what the literal reading of Scripture entails—and that is fine. I'd rather not push the evidence to cause doubt for you of the God behind that reading. But not all Christians (younger ones, especially) have your strength of faith and view of the evidence. Many of them will come to grips with the fact that the evidence is not in their favor. My hope is to better prepare them for that time, so that they will not abandon scripture, but only the false dilemma to which they've held.

    If I never convince you, Roger, then I will not be dissatisfied. :) You've managed to reconcile the evidence to your view of scripture, so that you may yet praise God. By all means, let us continue to discuss science and scripture,. But my efforts here are primarily directed those disturbed by an apparent conflict.

  9. Jordan,
    I think that from within a naturalistic framework, there is much evidence in support of evolution. I was once a proponent and was trained to teach from an evolutionary perspective.

    Your question assumes that a truth can be falsified. I don't think that the answer to the origins question is a "scientific" answer, so I wouldn't pretend to apply scientific thinking to it. I simply put my faith in what I understand Genesis to teach on the topic. God created individual kinds that have diversified since then (of course, a very simplified explanation).

    I would use the same reasoning I apply to the virgin birth of Christ or the resurrection of the dead. "Science" says that neither of those can happen, but I trust they can because of my understanding of Scripture. Some claim this is a category error, but I disagree.

  10. Brent,
    I came from an evolutionary position to where I am, so I understand the issues well. If you would like, my bio and a short interview are on my book site (www.evolutionexposed.com). My material has been critiqued here on this blog in the past since I work at AiG. As I mentioned, it seems that we have irreconcilable presuppositions.

  11. Roger,
    Reading your answers, I just can't lump you in with the folks I criticize. In one of your posts, you say "in what I understand Genesis to teach on the topic." There is a huge difference between that and "What Genesis teaches on the topic."

    And if I can comment on the issue of Christ's virgin birth and the resurrection of the dead, i think the problem science has (when certain scientists say those things can't have happend) is that they start from "we don't see these things happen" and conclude "these things can't happen." Heck, the reason they receive the attention they receive in the Bible is because the writers are aware that these things don't just happen everyday. There is a bias against the possibility of supernatural intervention on the part of some (many?) scientists.

    I think the case of evolution, the evidence (geological, genomic, etc.) God has left for us to discover points to a different understanding of the text. I think I half agree with you on your "origins" statement above (depending on what you're talking about). We need God's revelation to tell us that He is involved, He is sovereign, He brings purpose and order to creation and He is pleased with it, in all its wild and untamed beauty. For all we can discover about the material world on our own, without that perspective, we are lost.