23 October 2008

How evolution can inspire faith

It is understandably typical for Christians to consider evolution as something that confronts and challenges faith. To say that North American evangelicals consider evolution to be largely incompatible with Christian belief is to state the painfully obvious. An evangelical who will just admit that common descent might be true is a progressive thinker, and much of the current discussion is dominated by attempts to push back on evolution by suggesting that it really isn't a completely accurate – or even minimally accurate – description of the development of life in God's world. Almost certainly because of perceived "incompatibilities," evangelical theological reflection on the implications of various scientific conclusions, specifically with regard to biblical interpretation, is regularly decried as dangerously inadequate. (Consider Peter Enns' recent review of a new book on the age of the earth by two of my most excellent colleagues. HT: David Opderbeck.) In other words, many thinking evangelicals are concerned about the lack of serious evangelical engagement of evolutionary theory.

But help is on the way. I've already mentioned Gordon Glover's wonderful Beyond the Firmament (and I reviewed it for the forthcoming issue of the Reports of the NCSE). I haven't seen Denis Lamoureux's Evolutionary Creation yet, but if it's as good as Mike Beidler says, then the landscape is looking a lot less barren. And now we have a very significant new voice in the conversation: my friend Daniel Harrell, associate minister at Park Street Church in Boston, a brilliant reformed preacher and gifted thinker whose ministry had a profound impact on myself and my family at a critical juncture in our spiritual lives. Daniel has written an excellent and interesting book on evolution and Christianity, and I give it my highest possible recommendation.

It's called Nature's Witness: How Evolution Can Inspire Faith, and you can buy it at Amazon or CBD right now. I read it a few months ago and blurbed it, and sometime in the next few months I hope to review it here. In the meantime, look for occasional comments and quotes. But for now, here's an excerpt from the Introduction, presented with permission from the publisher. In fact, this is the bulk of the Introduction, but the final paragraph is the paragraph I would have chosen to capture the essence of Daniel's approach and his project.
Walking across the Boston Common one cold winter’s eve, I was approached by a gentleman, somewhat agitated, who recognized me from church. “Are you the minister who’s writing the book on evolution?” This didn’t sound good. “Uh, ... yes?” I replied, bracing myself. “Do you believe in the word of God? Do you believe that God created the heavens and the earth in six days, like the Bible says?” His articulation was semiautomatic—as was his tone. I assured him that yes, I believed the Bible says that God created the heavens and the earth in six days. I also believe that rivers clap their hands and that mountains sing (Ps 98:9) because the Bible says that too. But I don’t think that the Bible means six twenty-four-hour days any more than I believe that the Bible means that rivers have literal hands. He worried that I suffered from delusion (which as far as I am concerned is never outside the realm of possibility). However, I reminded him that there are two types of delusion. There is the delusion that believes something that is not true, and there is the delusion that fails to believe something that is true. If evolution is an accurate description of the emergence of life, as science attests, then believing it alongside the Bible should pose no threat. There’s no need to fear any honest search for truth because in the end, all honest searches for truth inevitably lead back to God. Historically, religious faith, particularly Christianity, served as the loom onto which the discoveries of science were woven. It was within a Christian theological framework that scientific disclosure found its transcendent meaning. Descartes, Bacon, Galileo, Kepler and Newton, believers all, saw their work not as replacements for faith, but as extensions of it. The idea was that the best of science and the best of theology concerted to give human beings deeper insight into the workings of the universe and, subsequently, into the divine character. Scientific discovery was received with gratitude to the Almighty for the wonder of his creation. Scientists, alongside the psalmist, would proclaim, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands” (Ps 19:1 NIV). The balance between faith and science (or reason) was established in the Middle Ages by Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas, building on Augustine, established a delicate equilibrium between theology (reasoning down from faith) and philosophy, analogous to science (reasoning up from sensory data). Aquinas, unlike the Reformers who would follow, taught that human senses and rational faculties, as made by God, were competent for understanding reality, albeit from a limited standpoint. The limits were filled in by theology. Aquinas asserted that God acted through “secondary causes,” creating the world according to his laws and then giving nature room to unfold in accordance with God’s laws. Whatever was good science was good as far as God is concerned; science simply described what God had already done. However, if God operated mostly behind the scenes as the prime cause, then it wasn’t long before people started wondering whether he was there at all. In time, reliance upon divine revelation gave way to human reason in its Enlightenment form, and soon the supernatural was rendered superfluous. As science advanced, Christians reacted by retreating into a sort of Manichean dualism whereby science was demonized and faith grew reliant on a super-supernatural world where any ordinary explanation raised suspicion. With battle lines so starkly drawn, scientists were left to assume that any move toward Christian faith was akin to committing intellectual suicide. Conversely, the faithful relied on science for their medicine or the weather forecast, but much more than that was to attempt spiritual suicide. Let a spark of evolution in the door and you were liable to catch the whole house on fire. The controversy between Christian faith and evolution is exacerbated by increasing mounds of scientific data that lend weight to evolution. Paleontology, biochemistry, cosmology, physics, genetics—you name the discipline—each regularly puts forth newly discovered evidence in support of Darwin’s simple idea of descent with modification. While some people of faith choose to keep their doors closed, shutting out science is not necessary. Christian faith by definition defies human conceptions of reality (1 Cor 3:19). Its claims are grounded in extraordinary events that defy scientific explanation (most importantly the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus). But God is not only present where science is silent; he remains present even where science speaks loudest. The expansiveness of the universe, the beauty and complexity of organic life and the remarkable makeup of human consciousness—naturally explicable occurrences—are also interpreted by Christians as manifestations of God (Rom 1:20). Christianity consistently asserts that all truth is God’s truth, implying that faith and science, despite differences when it comes to explaining why, nevertheless should agree in regard to what is. Why bother talking about God if God has no relation to observable reality? An avalanche of books has been devoted to the controversy between Christianity and evolution. Don’t expect a contribution to that debate here. There are plenty of other places where that conversation occurs. Instead, I’d like to look at Christian faith in the face of evolution as essentially true as most scientists assert. Now I know that just because a particular theory makes sense of the way something could have happened, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it actually happened that way. But if evolution truly provides an accurate description of life on earth, and things did happen the way evolution describes, how might we rethink the way we think about what the Bible says? To rethink what we think about the Bible is not to rewrite Scripture, nor is it to capitulate to Christianity’s detractors. Instead, rethinking and reworking our theology in light of accurate data results in a more dependable and resilient theology. To be a serious Christian is to seek truth and find it as revealed by God both in Scripture and in nature. If God is the maker of heaven and earth, as we believe, then the heavens and earth, as science describes them, have something to say about God. Natural selection need not imply godless selection. To be reliable witnesses of creation can’t help but make us more reliable witnesses to the Creator.
I hope you're intrigued. Go buy the book—you'll love it—then look for occasional conversations here about some of Daniel's ideas.

Steve Matheson, Calvin College

19 October 2008

Why I'm not a Behe fan: conclusion and a challenge

About 2 months ago, I finished a series on Michael Behe's latest book, The Edge of Evolution. I concluded that it was a terrible book, displaying significant errors of both fact and judgment. The book's main argument is a population genetics argument, and Behe seems to have little knowledge or understanding of that difficult subject. The book is a joke, and I believe it will someday be seen as one of the more disastrous mistakes made by the ID movement. But I think it's important to distinguish between Behe's errors (which reflect on his scientific credibility and on his decision-making habits) and his thesis. His book is full of mistakes, but that doesn't mean that his proposal is known to be false. So I'd like to make it clear what my verdict on his book actually is, then present an outline of one way to actually test Behe's hypothesis.

1. In The Edge of Evolution, Behe correctly identified a biological process – the generation of genetic variants that lead to evolutionary change – as a likely focus of deliberate design. Having concluded that common descent is true, he reasoned that the trajectory of change through the tree of life might be expected to show evidence of non-random direction. Design, as he and others in the ID movement conceive it, might be manifested in the pattern by which the tree of life came to be. (Some might go as far as to say that it must be manifested in such a way, but I don't think Behe suggests this.) My point is that there is nothing stupid, irrational, or unscientific about Behe's reasoning. So, Behe conceived a hypothesis, which I will restate as follows:
  • Based on the consideration of life's complexity, specifically on the consideration of the integrated complexity that characterizes the molecular machinery of the cell, it is proposed that random mutation and subsequent selection cannot fully account for the evolutionary development of biological systems.
  • Consequently, it is proposed that the process of mutation is non-random.
Again, I find nothing outrageous or stupid about the hypothesis, or even its rationale. Molecular machines are astoundingly complex and integrated, and I do think it's reasonable to wonder how such things can come about without the aid of a superintelligence. In other words, Behe's proposal is not inherently incoherent or otherwise easily dismissed. Might the machinery of life have emerged through non-random processes? Sure. EoE is a joke, but not because the proposal is a joke.

EoE is a joke because Behe seems not to have even attempted to establish the strength of the hypothesis. Very little of the book is devoted to this central concern, and those sections that take up the task are so laughably wrong that they have led me to question Behe's scientific integrity. (Sorry, no apologies: the errors are too basic, and the proposal too world-altering, to give someone who is vying for scientific immortality a pass on standards of scientific conduct.)

But this is important: Behe's failure to even attempt an honest defense of his proposal does not imply that the proposal has been falsified. It hasn't. It remains possible that the development of biological machines – especially in the early days of the tree of life – was characterized by a non-random, directed trajectory. (I happen to doubt this, but that's not relevant here.) Behe's book is a failure, but his hypothesis stands.

So here we are: an interesting and potentially revolutionary hypothesis has been advanced. It has a certain explanatory appeal, and it has unquestioned relevance for believers of many kinds. It is empirical and rational. And, I maintain, it is testable, at least in principle. And so I'm offering to collaborate on a real effort to test it.

2. Behe's proposal leads to certain types of testable predictions. He claims that the genetic changes that underlie certain levels of evolutionary change occurred non-randomly. In other words, he claims that there is a dramatic mismatch between rates of genetic mutation and rates of evolutionary change. His efforts in EoE were ridiculously inadequate. Here is an outline of an approach that could succeed.
  • One major mistake that Behe made was to devote most of his attention to a "case study" in which significant genetic change did not occur. His case study was poorly suited to his purpose, but even if it had been better conceived it would be worthless. We can't learn about how evolution works by analyzing examples in which it didn't occur. (Well, of course it did occur in Behe's case study, but the changes that he claims are non-random are different by his own definition.)
  • So, any approach to the detection of non-random influences on evolutionary change needs to focus on case studies that actually involve the relevant level of evolutionary change. Examples should be easy to find, by considering the tree of life and the branching levels at which one would hypothesize non-random change.
  • The evolutionary lineage(s) selected for analysis should be fairly well-documented, so that the nature of the relevant common ancestors can be reasonably inferred. This probably means that much deeper lineages (such as eukaryotes or even multicellular eukaryotes) would not make good subjects of analysis. Since Behe is pretty sure that design characterizes differences at the level of class (and deeper), this concern is not a barrier to addressing his hypothesis, at least at those levels of divergence. The tetrapod lineage could serve well, but there are any number of evolutionary trajectories that could be considered.
  • Within the selected lineage(s), one or more evolutionary changes would be selected for genetic analysis. Changes could be simple (such as the molecular evolution of a particular protein of interest) or more complex (such as the development of a particular attribute like teeth or feathers or lungs), and could even include the sum total of the genetic changes in a lineage, but must be amenable to genetic description. Most importantly, the evolutionary changes that are analyzed must be associated with the specific design postulate. The goal is to examine the genetic changes underlying an evolutionary transition that Behe would identify as designed.
  • Once the genetic changes of interest have been identified, analysis can proceed the way Behe pretended to proceed in EoE: inferred mutational trajectories can be considered in the light of estimated mutation rates and estimated generation numbers. If non-random mutation is clearly necessary for the evolutionary changes in question, it should be apparent that even the simplest mutational paths leading to change are well beyond the explanation of random mutation.
My description makes the undertaking sound straightforward, and in principle it is, but of course such examination of even a relatively simple evolutionary change is a significant and demanding project. Inferring the genetic makeup of the common ancestor is a project all by itself, and constructing postulated mutational pathways is the kind of work that occupies many professional biologists full-time. (Consider the work of Joe Thornton and his group, considered among the best analyses of this kind.) Estimates of generation number will span huge ranges even after the most careful consideration of the variables.

But this is the work that any real scientist and scholar would know has to be done. Behe's hypothesis is completely untested, and only the kind of study that I have outlined can change that. I invite any scholar with interest in undertaking this project to contact me. I would be interested in joining a collaborative effort to test the non-random mutation hypothesis, and I have some significant resources that could be brought to bear on the problem. This is a serious offer, and I would encourage readers to forward it to anyone who might be interested in discussing the details.

15 October 2008

And we're back!

Okay, wow, that was a long hiatus. I can explain, really I can. Here's a report on my activities in the last six weeks.

1. I wandered into Telic Thoughts in search of intelligent intelligent design advocates. It went okay -- there was real discussion (because TT actually wants dialogue) but it was painfully difficult to get through some major misconceptions (created by Michael Behe). The painful part was in the thread called Behe's Test, Take 2, in which some of us tried to explain the relevance of some recent work on bacterial antibiotic resistance to "Darwinian" evolution. I'll repost one of my contributions here soon.

2. Some months ago, after hearing Richard Colling give a talk at Calvin (on his ideas set forth in his book Random Designer) my colleague and friend Randy Pruim (of the mathematics and statistics department) and I decided we should get some people together to get serious about this whole question of randomness and God's action. We got a grant from the Calvin Center for Christian Scholarship to fund a yearlong reading group. We've met once already, and it was a blast. I'll separately post on our activities and ideas and my thoughts. Randy, by the way, is also the director of our new HHMI-funded Integrated Science Research Institute (ISRI), and he's devoted a page to our reading group, affectionately known as Random Readers.

3. My blogging buddy over at Clashing Culture, Mike Haubrich, had me as a guest on his cool radio show (Atheists Talk) in the Twin Cities. The subject was "Defending Theistic Evolution," broadcast October 5. It was fun, and I even took an email question from PZ Myers. (Well, it was more like the abstract of a dissertation than a radio show question, but maybe Mike will have me back and we can talk longer.) Some of the questions we discussed:
  • How do you separate your science from your belief?
  • What is your take on theistic evolution?
  • Were humans the goal of creation?
  • "All of the facets that shape evolution involve lots of cruelty and pain only partially tempered by the joy of sex. I have trouble reconciling a loving God with what we know about evolution. How do you defend this view of evolution?"
You can listen to the interview at the Atheists Talk page.

4. I'm not the only one who was dumb enough to think that Uncommon Descent is a place where people might be able to intelligently discuss evolution, design and faith; Ted Davis made the same mistake (and I do think we were mistaken to go there in the first place). Last month, Ted engaged in an interesting discussion there, for a time, with two other commenters, going by the names of Jack Krebs and Timaeus. They were soon all banned, because Uncommon Descent is not, and does not pretend to be, a place where thoughtful adults hold discussions. But Ted persuaded Timaeus to come to the ASA email list instead, for the purpose of examining and addressing the perceived animus held by "theistic evolutionists" toward ID proponents. (Note: if you follow any of the links to read Timaeus' posts, you'll see a lot of odd characters, which result from the unwise use of Microsoft Word (!) to compose email.)

The conversation began about 3 weeks ago, and peaked about a week and a half later. It's not over, but everyone seems to be taking a breather. I would say that it's going better now than it did at first, though it still seems that Timaeus (a defender of ID) is not able to understand the reasons why Christians like me can see no good reason to suppose that Darwin's theory is inherently or necessarily atheistic or a-teleological. Timaeus is (by his own admission) a non-scientist, and it shows when he mentions evolutionary theory or quotes the usual ID suspects. (He repeats the "Darwinists never studied non-coding DNA" myth, and is unjustifiably impressed by Denton, Behe and even Egnor.) He has a penchant for propagandistic rhetoric, exacerbated by his shallow understanding of the science that is misused by ID apologists. At first, I thought it was pretty clear that he had come to the ASA to argue for ID, and not to listen to the responses of people who have thought about all of this before. And it's still not apparent that Timaeus understands or respects the evolutionary creation position, or that he finds any significant value in listening to what knowledgeable scientists say about ID proposals. But the last few exchanges have been quite a bit better. When the subject is just plain design, and not science or religion, actual dialogue seems to happen, and we're currently discussing Del Ratzsch's work on the nature of design and the marks it might leave.

Talking to ID apologists about design itself is hard enough without all the pollution of anti-science propaganda and theological incompetence. But maybe there can be some progress, at least toward peaceful coexistence of Christians who do and don't prefer certain types of explanation. So watch for updates on the Random Readers, and I'll post any further discussion with Timaeus here.