The Missing Link?

This week I recorded and watched the History Channel documentary, “The Link,” which featured the recent scientific findings surrounding a miraculously intact primate fossil, estimated to be about 47-million years old.

The documentary was interesting, but far too long. I’ll save you some time and summarize the two-hour presentation in two sentences:  The fossil, (discovered in the Messel Shale Pit in Germany), appears to be a transitional species that shows characteristics from both the non-human and human evolutionary lines.  Though the animal has features from the prosimian (lemur) line of primates—a grooming claw, a tooth comb—it also has features from the anthropoid (monkey, ape, man) line—a talus bone in the ankle that makes standing upright possible...so it appears to be a well-preserved snapshot from our evolutionary line dating from just after the split with the lemurs, something scientists expected to find within the estimated time period.

This is certainly a significant finding, although I’m not sure it was worth all the hype it has received over the past few weeks. I’m still a little unclear about what characteristics a specimen would need to exhibit in order to undoubtedly represent a  “missing link.”

Having grown up in a conservative Christian environment that taught young earth creationism exclusively, I’m still playing catch up with my basic knowledge of evolutionary theory. Over the past few years, I’ve studied the subject, and found scientific evidence in support of evolution to be too compelling to ignore. I’m beginning to believe that Theodosius Dobzhansky was right when he said that “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” Dobzhansky was a devout Eastern Orthodox Christian.

However, I still have quite a few friends and family members who remain committed to young earth or intelligent design paradigms...( I live in Dayton, Tennessee, home of the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925, after all)...so I always try to give these groups a fair hearing.

I went to the Answers in Genesis Web site and found an article about how these recent findings “should in no way faze creationists” because “the fossil does not resemble a human skeleton,” because it  “was found in two parts,” and because the fossil’s lack of a grooming claw and toothcomb “are easily explained by variation with a kind.” The article concludes that “nothing about this fossil suggest it is anything other than an extinct, lemur-like creature” and that “the remarkable preservation is a hallmark of rapid burial...consistent with a catastrophic flood.” 

I’ll let you guys critique that argument.

Marlin Lavenhar once said, “...Now that we have discovered DNA and its code, we know that we are not only related to monkeys, we are related to zucchini. So let’s get over it.”

This quote makes me smile and wince at the same time. On the one hand, I think that the idea that we are interconnected to all of life is quite beautiful and spiritual...maybe even biblical. On the other hand, one has to wonder how descending from apes makes us “created in the image of God.”

Sometimes I wonder if, just as Galileo’s paradigm of a sun-centered solar system offended man’s pride, evolution is meant to remind us that we are not the center of the universe after all. Sometimes I wonder if God uses science to provide us with a healthy serving of humility every now and then.

So what do you think about the news surrounding “The Link”? Is it dangerous propaganda or a reality check?

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So I Want to Buy a Billboard...

Although the famous Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925 ended long ago, tensions between religious fundamentalists and secularist still run high here in Dayton. Passions were recently reignited by a local billboard war.

First, the Freedom from Religion Foundation put this billboard up just outside the Dayton city limits:

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Then, local activist June Griffin put this one up in town:

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The billboard wars have left Dayton residents with two equally ill-informed choices. The first advocates sacrificing faith on the altar of science, while the second advocates sacrificing science (not to mention civility) on the altar of faith. These competing billboards create the impression that one must choose between deifying Darwin on the one hand and vilifying scientists on the other. They imply that we have only two options—to give up our faith or give up our intellectual integrity.

As a Christian who recognizes the mounting scientific evidence in support of the theory of evolution, I think a third option should be represented. I think it’s time to move past the name-calling, and reject as false the choice between faith in God and respect for science. This is a view that I believe is shared by many in this community, although it is rarely represented.

With that in mind, my husband and I designed this billboard:

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We called the local billboard company. Not surprisingly, it’s a bit pricey to put up a billboard, even for a month.  So instead we’ve created some "Evolve Beyond the Choice" stickers and yard signs for those of you who want to have a little fun and make a statement around town. We figured that if we sell enough to cover half of the cost, we’ll buy a billboard spot ourselves.  (Also, if you know of an organization/person who might be interested in supporting such a board, contact me.)

I believe that we honor God when we embrace what His creation has to teach us, and that we imitate Jesus Christ when we treat one another with kindness and respect. Even if we don’t get the billboard spot, I think it’s important to communicate the fact that an alternative exists, that you don’t have to choose between worshipping Darwin or calling people monkeys.

So, if you could put up a billboard in Dayton, what would yours say?

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Making Peace with Science

In belated recognition of Darwin’s 200th birthday, I thought I’d post a series on faith and science, culminating with a really fun post on Friday that you’re not going to want to miss. (Hint: It’s about the billboard war in Dayton.)

I thought I’d start by sharing my own story of how I came to respect evolutionary theory as a viable explanation for how God created the heavens and the earth, and how this position has enriched rather than destroyed my faith.

Defacing Science Books with Crayons

I’m not sure when I first heard about the theory of evolution, but glancing through an old science book of mine shows that I had a pretty negative impression of it.

When I was about ten, my mom bought me this fantastic used science book from a garage sale called “Tell Me Why.” It included colorful drawings of fossils and flowers, dinosaurs and molecules, planets and lightening strikes. I loved it. However, the first two pages described the history of planet earth using the evolutionary model of billions of years, common ancestry, and survival of the fittest. Apparently, I had some strong objections with such a description, and therefore took a gray crayon and wrote “NOT!” all over the first two pages of the book.

My parents never really pushed young earth creationism on me nor taught that it was a fundamental element of the Christian faith, but for most of my life I travelled in circles where it was assumed that good Christians embraced a literal interpretation of Genesis 1 and 2, which describes the earth as being created in six days.

Young earth creationism goes something like this: Because the Bible is God’s Word and is truthful in all that it affirms, the book of Genesis accurately records how God created the universe and life on earth. Based on the scientific accuracy of the Bible, one must conclude that the creation week consisted of seven 24-hour days, and that the earth is around 6,000 years old. Geological and fossil evidence does not conclusively prove an earth age of millions of years, but can be explained by the argument that God chose to create things at full maturity with the appearance of having developed, or by the argument that various factors, such as the earth’s magnetic field, may have changed through the years and affected the accuracy of carbon dating. Contrary to the theory of evolution, the Bible teaches that God separately created distinct kinds of organisms, and that the similarities between these organisms point to a common Creator rather than a common origin.

I learned much of this at Bryan College from Dr. Kurt Wise, one of the leading young earth creationists in the country and a favorite professor among Bryan students. Dr. Wise once told us the story of how, as a sophomore in high school, he had dreams of becoming a scientist, but could not reconcile the theory of evolution with the creation account found in the Bible. So one night, after the rest of his family had gone to bed, he took a pair of scissors and a newly-purchased Bible and began cutting out every verse that he believed would have to be removed to believe in evolution. He spent weeks and weeks on the project, until he’d gone through the entire book, from Genesis to Revelation. By the time he finished, he said that he couldn’t even lift the Bible without it falling apart. That was when he decided that “either Scripture was true and evolution was wrong or evolution was true and I must toss out the Bible.”

So, for most of my life, I was under the impression that one could not be a true Christian and believe in evolution. I thought I had to choose between faith in accepted science and faith in God.  I later found that this is a very dangerous position in which to leave one’s faith.

Crisis of Faith

During my early twenties, I had a lot of doubts about Christianity. I struggled with questions about religious pluralism, the destiny of the un-evangelized, the Problem of Evil, the inerrancy of the Bible, and much more. Looking back, I see that this was a healthy experience for me, for it helped me distinguish between what things were really essential to my faith and which things were not. But at the time, it was pretty scary.

Removed from the conservative evangelical community, I began learning more about evolutionary theory. I started to see that despite what I’d been told, there was some really compelling scientific evidence that supported evolution, and that all kinds of modern scientific discoveries/advances (particularly concerning genetics) confirmed Darwin’s theory.  Perhaps most disconcerting to me was the fact that the overwhelming majority of scientists—something like 98 percent—believed in evolution and were working off of evolutionary principles. In other words, for most scientists, evolution is not a theory in the same way that a hunch about a potential love match is a theory. It’s a theory in the same way that gravity is a theory.

It seemed extremely improbable to me that all of these scientists had gotten together and conspired against the faith community. As Francis Collins writes in The Language of God, this is just not how scientists work:

“One of the most cherished hopes of a scientist is to make an observation that shakes up a field of research.Scientists have a streak of closeted anarchism, hoping that someday they will turn up some unexpected fact that will force a disruption of the framework of the day. That’s what Nobel Prizes are given for. In that regard, any assumption that a conspiracy could exist among scientist to keep widely current theory alive when it actually contains serious flaws is completely antithetical to the restless mind-set of the profession.” ( p. 58)

I’ve never liked conspiracy theories. When someone tells me that the moon landing didn’t happen or that Barack Obama is an alien from another planet, I tend to be skeptical. So after doing some research, it became harder for me to accept the notion that thousands of scientists worldwide were in the business of intentionally falsifying data and producing fake fossils just to undermine Christianity, especially when about 40 percent of these scientists are people of faith themselves.

[As Micah and others have noted, those of us without access to big telescopes and high-powered microscopes accept much of this information on faith. In other words, I have not personally observed the cosmic microwave background radiation that provides strong support for the Big Bang theory.  Nor have I ever dug up a hominoid scull or watched a bacterial infection evolve into a resistant strain in a Petri dish.  But the same could be said for a lot of things I take as truth. I’ve not personally gone into outer-space and observed the shape of the earth, but I’d have to believe in a pretty outlandish conspiracy theory to entertain the notion that all those beautiful pictures of our spherical planet were made in Photoshop.]

For several years, my heart sank with every convincing argument in support of evolution I came upon. I wrongly believed that each one brought my faith closer to its demise. This is why I think it is so dangerous to teach young people that belief in God and belief in evolution are mutually exclusive. Many of us grow up to face a difficult, yet completely unnecessary choice between our faith and intellectual honesty. We must expose this dichotomy as false before more people leave the faith over it.

Lessons from History

The first time I entertained the notion that the theory of evolution might be compatible with my faith happened when I was studying the history of the church. I learned that in Galileo’s day, support for the traditional paradigm of an earth-centered universe was so adamantly espoused by the Church that anyone presenting evidence to the contrary could be excommunicated.

In those days, most Christians believed that the Bible spoke quite clearly about cosmology. The earth had a foundation (Job 38:4), which did not move (Psalm 93:1; Proverbs 8:28).  Even Protestant Theologian John Calvin considered geocentricism so fundamentally true that he claimed people who believed in a moving earth were “possessed by the devil.”

But if geocentricism was indeed this important to the Christian faith, then Christianity would have slowly died out with the eventual acceptance of a helio-centric cosmology. But instead, Christians adapted, and now no educated Christian believes that the sun and the planets and stars revolve around the earth. I’m sure it took some getting used to, but believers found a way to re-think and re-imagine their faith in the context of a new environment, where they no longer sat in the center of the universe. As I considered this, I began to wonder if perhaps the current debates regarding evolution were comparable. Maybe God was just trying to teach us something new about the world around us. Maybe the Christian faith could survive in a four-billion-year-old world.

The Bible is Not a Science Textbook

About this time, I also learned that it was quite possible to interpret Genesis 1 and 2 metaphorically without compromising the point of the passage—that God created the universe. The notion that the Bible is only true if it is scientifically/historically accurate is based more on Enlightenment rationality than on Scripture itself. The Apostle Paul wrote that "all Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work." He never says that it is to be used as a science textbook. This, of course, is probably a topic for another post!

All Truth is God’s Truth

Strangely enough, one of the most important things I learned at Bryan was that all truth is God’s truth. In other words, Christians need not be afraid of truth because if God is who he says he is, then he is behind it.

Scientists are responsible for studying the physical world.  (They should be required to factor in the metaphysical; that’s not their job.) So when scientific conclusions seem to clash with our assumptions regarding theology, we’ve got to learn to deal with it in a way that doesn’t involve burying our heads in the sand or simply ignoring good data. We have to be willing to face the facts.

I’ve already mentioned Francis Collins’ book The Language of God, but I cannot adequately explain how dramatically this book changed my perspective. The Language of God is a beautifully written, intelligent, and compassionate book written by the man who was the head of the Human Genome Project. A devout Christian and one of the world’s most important scientists, Collins makes the case for how a scientist can believe in God and how people of faith can embrace science.  While reading The Language of God, I experienced a strange phenomenon:  I simultaneously grew more convinced that my faith in God was in fact reasonable while also growing more convinced that my belief in young earth creationism was not.

For example, I learned that questions surrounding the Big Bang and quantum mechanics actually complimented much of Judeo-Christian theology. I was reminded that no scientist can ever explain the moral law written on the human heart. At the same time, I came to better understand how rocks are dated and how scientist often discover fossils of transitional species at precisely the date and place that evolutionary theory would predict.  An expert on DNA, Collins eloquently and convincingly shows how Darwin’s theory of evolution is supported by naturally occurring mutations in DNA. I marveled at a chart that showed a diagram of the tree of life, where relationships between different mammalian species were figured out solely by comparison of their DNA sequences, providing powerful support for Darwin’s idea of descent from a common ancestor with natural selection operating on randomly occurring variations.

That said, I’ve still got a lot to learn about evolution, and I’ve honestly never been that good at science, so it’s going to take some time. I'm still open to arguments from creationists.

However, I’m no longer afraid of bumping into a fact that might destroy my faith. I’ve learned that my faith is much more resilient than that.  Like a living organism, it is extremely adaptable to change!

Conclusion

I know that many of my readers will strongly disagree with the conclusions that I have reached, and that’s okay. I welcome a healthy debate.  It isn’t especially important to me to convince people that evolution happened.  I’m not qualified, nor motivated to do so. However, I think it is incredibly important to get the word out that faith in God and belief in evolution can coexist, that a person does not have to choose between the two.

Saint Augustine, in a statement far ahead of his time, said this in one of his many commentaries on the book of Genesis:

"In mattes that are so obscure and far beyond our vision, we find in Holy Scripture passages which can be interpreted in very different ways without prejudice to the faith we have received. In such cases, we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one said that, if further progress in the search for truth justly undermines this position, we too fall with it."
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Guest Post: Micah Visits the Creation Museum

Thanks to Micah for letting me use this post from his blog, Forty Monkeys, Ten Minutes.

My visit to the Creation Museum

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So this happened quite a while ago, but I haven't gotten around to writing it up (in part because I kept putting it off until I got the pictures off my phone, and in part because I knew it would be long). I went to the Creation Museum in Northern Kentucky with the Elderberries, the 60+ crowd from VCC. The Creation Museum is an offshoot of Answers in Genesis and the work done by their founder, Ken Hamm.

It was bizarre. I felt like I was in some alternate universe. I'm a Christian, I'm kind of a big fan of the Bible, and I believe it's theologically and scientifically acceptable to read Genesis 1-11 from a "young earth" perspective (although I myself do not). I've done a TON of reading on both sides of the issue, I'm more than a little familiar with the talking points, and in a one-on-one conversation I'll tend to take the opposite side from whoever I talk to. I don't want to give my whole creation/evolution backstory here (although I may do that in another post), but I can't imagine that the Creation Museum could have a more receptive "unbeliever" (in their particular story, at least) than me. I figured that while I wouldn't agree with the AIG folks' perspective on everything, I wouldn't see anything that would surprise me.

Wow, was I wrong. The diplomatic way of describing the visit would be to say that they're good folks who love Jesus and love the Bible, and they're willing to die on some hills that I'm not willing to die on. And by "some" I mean "lots."

First, let me say good things. The facility was beautiful. And not beautiful in an ostentatious "we threw a ridiculous amount of money at this thing" way, but in a "we really thought about this and wanted to do our very best to make it a good experience" way. The people were delightful... from the security guard to the ticket lady to the tour guides to the animal handler to the dude selling ice cream. They obviously really cared about what they were doing, and it showed. Christians should be the best in customer service, and these folks were.

As soon as you start in, though, you're faced with an either/or choice that framed the rest of the visit. We were told, in big letters and repeated signs, that one could either start with "Man's Reason" or "God's Word." Man's reason would lead you to believe that the evil evolutionists were right, whereas "God's Word" would show that the earth was young (really young) and that Noah's flood took place 4,937 years ago.

This is problematic for me on several levels. First, I believe God has revealed himself to us through the 66 books of the Bible. But I also believe (and I think the Bible is pretty clear on this) that he's also revealed himself to us through the natural order. "Nature itself" teaches us about God's attributes, and the heavens themselves declare his character. So it should be possible to study nature without the Bible and learn something about God, and it shouldn't be in conflict with what God explicitly tells us.

On a more fundamental level, though, everything in the place was a testament to "Man's Reason" as we've struggled to understand what the Bible tells us. On a really fundamental level, I don't see "God's Word" and "Man's Reason" as conflicting. Rodney Stark wrote an amazing book called "The Victory of Reason" where he argued that something like the Enlightenment is only possible in a monotheistic culture where a belief in a Creator leads to a belief in a created order, which in turn leads to the possibility of an orderly set of observations about the world that we today call "Science."

So as I walked through the Creation Museum, I saw exhibit after exhibit that tried really hard to tell one side of the story, and to be honest they did a pretty fair job. But there's something deeply disconcerting about seeing an exhibit on, for example, "A Biblical Model of Coal Formation" or "Biblical Model of Tectonic Plate Activity" or whatever and seeing them labeled as "God's Word." Because when I read the Bible, I don't remember reading much about coal formation or tectonic plates or anything like that.

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What they've done is decided ahead of time what the answer is, and then gone back and looked for a theory that works towards that answer. And that's actually somewhat ok... there's a time and a place for that. The difficulty is that any theory of coal formation is a theory that's built on Man's Reason, since the Bible says nothing about that topic. And so because they're committed to a super-young-earth model of Creation, the AIG folks end up dismissing a ton of actual scientific and historical evidence (like the fact that we have more than 4,937 years of after-Flood history) that's really a deal-breaker for anyone who really wants to sit down and think this through. And they get into ridiculous side-discussions (like proving Adam hung with dinosaurs) that don't really prove their point.

The point to this post (there is one, I promise) is that the real problem for me isn't their views of the Creation account. I get how you could open up the Bible at Genesis 1 and come out at Genesis 11 with something very like their understanding. And I certainly get how you could listen to the pabulum shoveled out in your average high school biology class and think "That's a load of feces, and no more reasonable (or scientific) than my beliefs." But when you make this a deal-breaker, you have a problem. When you say that if you don't buy the official AIG understanding of Genesis 1-11, that you're not a real Christian... well then we have problems. Because what happens, again and again and again, is people listen to that logic, look at both sides of the issue, and say "Well then I guess I'm not a real Christian."

And that's tragic. Because a Christian is simply a follower of Christ. And the more pieces you try to add to that simple truth, the weaker your position becomes. My engineering friends would say it has "multiple points of failure." If your Christianity is the same as your politics or your economics or your favorite music or even your theology, then you've missed the boat entirely. And that's a scary scary thing.

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Stein takes on Darwinism

As you may have heard, Ben Stein (remember Ferris Bueller's Day Off?) is trying his hand at documentary film-making with the April 18 opening of “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed.” 

The film is bound to have the intelligent design community buzzing, as it criticizes what Stein sees as Darwinism’s monopoly on academia. 

In an interview with Newsweek, Stein says, “Darwinism is a brilliant theory, but to say it has all the answers would not be truthful or sensible. And today’s students aren’t learning that.”  Stein focuses on scientists and professors who have been fired, denied tenure, and passed over for grants for suggesting intelligent design as a plausible theory. You can read more and see the trailer at http://www.expelledthemovie.com

Sounds interesting. I know the movie was promoted over at Bryan, so I’m interested in your thoughts. Should intelligent design be presented as a plausible theory in secular classrooms? Should we expect scientists, who study the physical world, to factor the metaphysical into their theories? 

I've heard that Stein comparies Darwinism to Nazism. Do you think that's a fair assessment? I know that social Darwinism has been used to justify some horrible human rights atrocities, but couldn't you say the same thing for Christianity?

More broadly, how do you feel about intelligent design? Is it just another name for creationism? Is it a “God in the gaps” approach to science? Or is it the most effective argument in support of a Creator?

Just starting a conversation here. Let me know what you think!

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