There are many online resources for the study of evolution, but not many written from the perspective of a scientist who ‘feels the pain’ of people who want to reject it.
BioLogos, the brainchild of National Institutes of Health director Francis Collins, often gets a bad rap. Creationists hate it because it not only accepts evolution, it does a great job of expounding on it and promoting it.
Some outspoken anti-religious scientists, on the other hand, can’t stand it because the organization openly attempts to reconcile an evangelical understanding of the Bible with modern science. And it tends to lean rightward on the political spectrum.
But that still leaves a lot of room for people in the middle. And they make up an ever growing audience.
Reaching that audience is Venema’s job. And he’s been at it since 2010, writing essays and tutorials for the foundation.
But he’s really hit his stride with a Evolution Basics, written throughout the course of this year.
Venema is an associate professor of biology at Trinity Western University in Langley, British Columbia. And he’s been involved in the evolution/creationism debate since his days as an undergrad.
In those days, he considered himself an Intelligent Design proponent. But he soon lost confidence in the movement. I was curious as to whether he had interacted with the Discovery Institute, the Seattle-based organization that promotes it.
“No, during the time that I was an ID supporter, I had no contact with the Discovery Institute other than being a fan of some of their key figures, most notably Michael Behe,” he told me when I contacted him by email. “I read Behe’s Darwin’s Black Box as a very early grad student, and that pretty much settled my pro-ID stance until I reevaluated things as an assistant professor.
“Despite my pro-ID / creationism stance, the evolution issue was not a major interest for me. I did take the time, however, to denigrate evolution in my classes in my first few years, and I did invite pro-ID speakers to address my classes as well.”
While he no longer supports ID, Venema appreciates his early enthusiasm for the movement. ”I have the personal experience of reading the ID literature –both from a relatively uninformed position, though I thought I was well-informed, since I had a B.Sc. in Biology at the time –as well as from an informed perspective, re-evaluating my ID views after I had a Ph.D. and a few years of teaching and research experience. Part of my audience today is reading the ID material from the former perspective, and it helps to have once ‘been there.’”
What brought him to BioLogos?
“Evangelicals really needed an organization that would stand up and say, in a nutshell, I’m an evangelical, and I accept evolution,” he said.
“Francis Collins, by virtue of his scientific standing and strong evangelical faith was an ideal person to found such an organization. It allowed other evangelical scientists, such as myself, to say I’m with Francis with less personal risk.
“As more and more scientists in the evangelical church are willing to take a stand, it creates space for others in the church who are not scientists, but who wish to celebrate mainstream science as compatible with robust Christian faith. When I was approached to be part of BioLogos, I was delighted at the opportunity. I want to help create some of that space for acceptance and dialogue within the evangelical community.”
A major part of Venema’s role became writing about the science of evolution for the evangelical audience.
“I feel that one long-term strategy for addressing this issue is to help bring the evangelical community to a greater understanding of how science works, and specifically how evolutionary biology is well-supported by scientific evidence. Also, the more one understands about the genuine science, the less one is susceptible to misleading claims of antievolutionary organizations.”
Venema’s own focus as a researcher is genetics. And I asked him whether this gave him an advantage in explaining evolution to skeptics.
“Evidence for evolution is everywhere – biogeography, embryology, anatomy, paleontology, and so on,” he said. “These lines of evidence, however, have a history of being resisted and denied within the evangelical community. Genetics, and more specifically comparative genomics (comparing DNA sequences between different species) has brought in a huge wealth of evidence for evolution in the last 15 years.
“It’s one thing to explain away biogeographical patterns or claim that anatomical similarities reflect a non-evolutionary ‘design’ pattern – but another thing altogether to attempt to explain away why humans (and other placental mammals) have a defective gene for making egg yolk in the exact spot in our genomes where chickens have the functional version of this gene, and that humans and chimpanzees share a large number of mutations in common in our two inactivated copies.
“Those lines of evidence are harder to evade (though some evangelical antievolutionary organizations are trying, without success). So, genomics makes the evidence for evolution much more blatant for a skeptical evangelical audience.”
Genomics also allows people to understand how evolution works at a molecular level over time, he added. And in general, it has revealed that a small amount of changes at the DNA level can have remarkable effects on the organism as a whole.
“For example, humans and our closest relatives, chimpanzees, have genomes that are around 95% identical, and most of the DNA differences are not differences that actually affect our forms. So, small changes accruing over time since we last shared a common ancestor was enough to shape our species since we parted ways – there is no evidence that evolution requires radical changes at the DNA level.”
Resistance to evolution among Americans remains strong–and among Christians of various denominations, even stronger. What aspect of the science, I asked Venema, poses the greatest challenge to Christians, in his experience?
“The challenge of evolution for evangelicals usually centers on how it impacts one’s view of the Bible. Taking the authority of the Bible seriously is a hallmark of evangelicalism. This is very much not my area of expertise, but I am thankful that my colleague, historian Ted Davis, has written extensively on this issue in his work for BioLogos. For example, last year Ted wrote an extensive series on Science and the Bible that is in some ways the theological analogue of my more recent Evolution Basics series.”
Is the message reaching a receptive audience? Venema believes it is, in spite of the skepticism of scientist bloggers like University of Chicago biologist Jerry Coyne, who has made BioLogos a regular target.
“Even in the time since I’ve joined BioLogos,” said Venema, “I’ve seen a shift in my circles with more and more people being open to the idea that God used evolution as a creative mechanism, and that mainstream science is the proper place to find out more about that mechanism. The trend is positive.
“Coyne on the other hand is sure that BioLogos is a flop – he seems to write about it every few months or so – because he hasn’t seen a massive swing in opinion in the short term. You’d think an evolutionary biologist would be better placed to understand gradual change over time in a population. To put it in biological terms, ‘Evolutionary Creationism’ is a relatively new allele in the evangelical population, but it is rapidly increasing in frequency from my perspective. It’s also relatively common for BioLogos to be invited to panel-type presentations where our view is now accepted as one of the live options for an evangelical. That’s light years ahead of the situation when I was a child, when even hearing ‘evolution’ or ‘Darwin’ was like hearing someone swear.
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“Now, this progress is not going to be viewed positively from either the Young Earth Creationist/ID position or from those who hold to scientism and reject ‘accomodationism’. In some ways, both sides have the same hermeneutic: that faithfulness to the Bible requires an antievolutionary stance. One side holds the Bible and ditches the science, and the other ditches the Bible and holds the science.”
It’s not surprising, for Venema, that any group that claims robust evangelical faith is perfectly compatible with a deep appreciation for science would receive criticism from both sides.
“One of the things I love about working with BioLogos is seeing individuals freed from this false dichotomy of choosing between science and faith.”
Even if you’re inclined to disagree, check out his essays. They’re better than most popular books on the topic.
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