I graduated from a Christian college. However, they weren’t a Bible college – they were scientifically literate. While I don’t believe in Christianity, I do have to give them credit for getting the science right. Of course, that earned them the ire of certain Christian groups which accused them of being too liberal. About the time that I was there, a minor controversy was sparked when one of the professors wrote a book saying that the universe was old, and man evolved. I don’t think his ideas weren’t controversial among the faculty, but it was with the parents. (It must be rough trying to be a scientifically literate Christian professor, with so many Christians being touchy about evolution.) I generally got the feeling that professors had to do a balancing act – teach the real science, but don’t piss off the parents.
Anyway, I was looking through a mailing I received from my old college tonight. I noticed a short excerpt about book created by two professors at the college titled “Origins: A Reformed Look at Creation, Design & Evolution”. Curious about what they might say, I googled it and found the website for the book. Much of the discussion was couched in very tame, conciliatory language to reconcile science and religion. (Of course, it might still spark controversy with the parents, because many people are unwilling to budge on the issue.) I’m sure Ken Miller would agree with virtually everything they say. It’s good to see Christian institutions avoid dogmatic insistence on creationism or intelligent design. They even talk about evidence for common descent of all life, including whale evolution and human evolution from apes. On the common descent of cats:
Psuedogenes are broken or non-functional genes. Mammals have sweet receptor genes that allow them to taste that certain foods are sweet. It was recently discovered that in cats one of these sweet receptor genes is a pseudogene. Because cats have a pseudogene instead of a functioning gene, cats cannot taste sweet flavors. For most mammals the inability to taste sweets would be a bad thing because foods that taste sweet are high in energy. But since different cat species mainly eat meat, they are not particularly harmed by the inability to taste sweets. Scientists believe that long ago a common ancestor of lions, tigers, house cats, and other cat species had a mutation that turned their sweet receptor gene into a pseudogene, but this did not harm them because they were already eating mostly meat. This pseudogene was then passed down to all their offspring. If cats were created separately, without common ancestry with other mammals, there would be no particular reason for cats to have a sweet receptor pseudogene. But if God created cats using the mechanisms of evolution and common ancestry with other mammals, then it makes sense that they might have such a pseudogene.
All of this is strong evidence for common ancestry and is consistent with the theory of evolution. When scientists construct family trees of different species based on similarities of genomic organization, introns, and pseudogenes, they get a tree that matches the family tree built by comparing similarities in ordinary genes, and this in turn matches the family tree built by studying fossils.
Here’s an excerpt from the section on abiogenesis:
Supporters of Intelligent Design argue that even the simplest living organism is far too complex to self-assemble. They argue that it is very improbable that a living cell could form simply out of chemicals interacting with each other without the aid of some sort of intelligent being to guide the process.
What are the chances that a simple living cell might self-assemble on the early earth? Again, the answer to that question depends on the assumptions made. We could imagine a warm pond of water with various simple organic molecules dissolved in it and then calculate the probability that millions of the right molecules will randomly collide together to spontaneously form a living cell. The probability of that happening is extremely low. (This scenario is sometimes compared to the probability that a tornado will go through a junkyard and spontaneously assemble an airplane.) Scientists long ago rejected the idea.
Today scientists have different theories about how the first cell might self-assemble, step-by-step, out of simpler pieces. For example, organic molecules could have been concentrated by geographical features such as ponds that repeatedly evaporate and then refill. Mineral clays could have helped form long chain molecules and held them in place long enough to assemble into larger structures. Deep underground fissures, regions near volcanoes, or deep ocean hydrothermal vents might have provided more likely environments for life to form. Given our current state of knowledge, these scientists conclude that we don’t know enough yet to calculate whether abiogenesis is probable or improbable. Once again, the problem is too difficult. We hope that scientific research over the next several decades will provide a better answer.
WHAT SHOULD WE SAY WHILE WE ARE UNCERTAIN?
As long as science does not have a definite conclusion, it would be best to exercise some humility and caution. It would be reasonable for supporters of Intelligent Design theory to say,
* “Scientists at present do not have a good, detailed explanation for how first life could self-organize without outside intelligent intervention.”
* “We believe that abiogenesis is very improbable and that future scientific research will convincingly show that it is very improbable.”
However, it seems like a bad idea for supporters of Intelligent Design to say,
* “We are certain that scientists will never find a good explanation for how first life could self-organize.”
* “We have proven that it is very improbable.”
It would be reasonable for critics of Intelligent Design theory to say,
* “Scientists at present do not have a detailed explanation for how first life could self-organize, but they have some theories that might be true and are worth investigating.”
* “We believe that future scientific research will convincingly show how it happened.”
However, it seems like a bad idea for them to say,
* “We are certain that scientists will find a good explanation for how first life could self-organize.”
* “We have proven that it happened.”
In another article on our website (“Are Planetary Orbits Stable?”) we told a story that comes from the time of Isaac Newton and Pierre de Laplace. During those decades it was scientifically uncertain whether the orbits of the planets in our solar system were stable over very long periods of time or whether the orbits were unstable and needed to be corrected (perhaps by some sort of divine intervention) every few centuries or so. Not very many people alive at the time would have been aware that this was an unanswered scientific question. But if they had been aware, some Christians at the time might have preferred that scientists prove that the planetary orbits were stable because it seems like “better design.” Other Christians might have preferred that scientists prove that the planetary orbits were unstable because it gives more direct evidence for God’s existence and governance of nature.
Today it is scientifically uncertain whether or not abiogenesis is possible. That would seem to be proof of God’s existence and intervention in the natural world. If God is going to miraculously intervene at some point in the history of life, the very beginning of life would be an obvious place. God could do a miracle once to get life started and then use the natural mechanisms of evolution to develop all the species. But other Christians would prefer that scientists eventually prove that abiogenesis and the evolution of complexity are possible because it would show that God designed an incredibly clever system of finely tuned natural laws.
While it’s reasonable for Christians to have preferences one way or the other, it’s important to remember that our belief in God does not rest on how the science turns out. If the scientific claim of Intelligent Design theory turns out to be true and abiogenesis is impossible, then we can stand in awe that God intervened to organize simple molecules into complex creatures. If the scientific claim of Intelligent Design theory turns out to be false, we can be equally in awe that God designed an astonishing system of natural laws in which living organisms can self-organize out of simpler pieces.
I suppose someone could point out that they are really playing it safe by praising God for the outcome no matter what happens, at least they’re not being dogmatic about the science and they are keeping Christians’ minds open to other possibilities. I also happen to agree with virtually everything they said (minus the parts about God), and think it’s a reasonable position for theists to take. It’s also an interesting contrast with the kinds of rhetoric we see coming out of groups like AIG and the Discovery Institute, and a reminder that this is a three-way battle within Christian circles.