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Going Public in The Journal

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In 2012, exactly eight years ago to the day, I went public by authoring an oped in the Wall Street Journal (included below). In the public square, I confessed I believed Jesus rose from the dead. In view of the Church and my creationist relatives, I also explained I saw a great deal of evidence for evolution. This is one of the few articles I’ve written that spoke so directly to politics, and it was a risky article to write. In the long shadow of the Scope Trial and the Dover Trial, I argued that science should be greater than politics, especially concerning questions of science education.

This oped was deeply personal. I explained what I personally believed and what I had personally seen. Sending this article for review was a difficult decision. Most people I knew, including family members, would passionately disagree with one part or another of what I wrote. Every mentor from whom I sought council advised me not to publish till I had tenure. Even though it felty very risky, I resolved to be truthful and transparent about what I had seen. In service of the common good, I chose to be honest about what I had seen.

The Wall Street Journal is among the most widely read publications in the world. This oped was far more visible than any scientific article I had written or lecture I had delivered. Once published, my inbox with responses. My scientific colleagues generally responded with curiosity about why I was a Christian. The response from Christians, however, was mixed. The Discovery Institute published a negative response, which they later revised. I answered questions in a post published on my lab website, a post that eventually became the first article here at Peaceful Science.

This article changed my path. For years afterwards, I would receive emails from about this oped. This was the most visible publication I had at the time, so even applicants to my university asked me questions about it during interviews. My experience navigating the oped’s aftermath gave me confidence. I grew more public in other ways, eventually speaking about five times per year in Veritas Forums, and writing an article for them about the evidence for the Resurrection.

The decision to go public was fateful.

This oped was how the AAAS’s Science for Seminaries program found me and invited me to be a science advisor to Concordia Seminary in St. Louis. There, I met John Walton, another advisor to Concordia, who connected me to the conversation in other ways too. The Science for Seminaries program is also how I met Paul Metzger at Multnomah University, and many other scholars across the country. Eventually, in 2016, I started a blog, Peaceful Science, which grew into something much bigger in the end.

It was another six years, in 2018, when I was awarded tenure and promoted to be an associate professor. I would only win my first NIH grants in 2016.

Today, I’m still not a full professor. Yet, in large part because of this oped, I now find myself in the public square.


WSJ Article

Rubio and the Age of the Earth Question

The rejection of evolution is not a core Christian belief. Better to focus on salvation, not creation.

By S. Joshua Swamidass, Nov. 29, 2012 7:22 pm ET

Sen. Marco Rubio recently touched a land mine in America’s culture wars: evolution, creation and the age of the Earth. When GQ magazine asked him how old the planet is, Mr. Rubio’s winding response never directly answered the question. Instead, he noted his lack of scientific qualifications (“I’m not a scientist, man”), posited a need to teach the “multiple theories out there on how the universe was created,” and settled into the platitude that the Earth’s age is an unsolvable “mystery.”

Predictably, his response made headlines. In keeping with Democratic talking points, the answer was framed as part of the Republican “war on science.” His response also highlighted a divide between evangelical conservatives and the rest of the Republican Party at a time, in the aftermath of a disappointing election, when the two sides were already eyeing each other warily. Mr. Rubio’s answer enabled his critics to cast one of the Republicans’ fastest rising stars as an ignorant religious nut. It also provided an opportunity for those hostile to Christians to lampoon them for trusting their sacred text more than science.

For conservatives, it is tempting to write off the Rubio episode as one more example of biased media coverage and anti-Christian bigotry. But such a dismissal would be a mistake. Better to regard the controversy as an opportunity for introspection.

As a Christian and career scientist, I see the episode as an opportunity for both Republicans and evangelicals to establish a more coherent policy on evolution, creation and science, for two reasons.

First, the age of the Earth and the rejection of evolution aren’t core Christian beliefs. Neither appears in the Nicene or Apostle’s Creed. Nor did Jesus teach them. Historical Christianity has not focused on how God created the universe, but on how God saves humanity through Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Currently, a debate is unfolding in theological seminaries and conferences about the correct interpretation of the Bible’s Genesis account of creation. Echoing thinkers like St. Augustine, C.S. Lewis, Mark Noll and Pope John Paul II, many of the conservative theologians in the debate believe that a serious reading of Genesis can be compatible with the scientific account of our origins.

Joining the dialogue are evangelicals who are also scientists—and with them comes a trend toward recognizing a “theistic” evolution: the role of God in creating us through an evolutionary process on a very old Earth.

The second reason that Republicans, including evangelicals, need to come up with a more coherent stance regarding the “age of the Earth” question—which journalists will always be happy to ask—is that there is simply no controversy in the scientific world about the age of the Earth or evolution. Evidence points to a 4.5-billion-year-old planet.

The evidence for evolution is just as strong. In the past, evolution rested on ambiguous fossil evidence, but now it rests on much clearer DNA evidence that increases exponentially every month. Fully appreciating this evidence takes a lot of time, reading and patience. And it is not appropriate to “teach the controversy” in science class because there is no ongoing debate in the scientific community comparable to the theological debate.

The evolution debate is not a scientific controversy, but a theological controversy about a non-central Christian doctrine. In terms of policy, neither evangelicals nor Republicans should expect secular schools to litigate doctrinal controversies in science classrooms. And Christians who try to push their view of creation through political coercion are misrepresenting their faith. The “good news” is how God saves us. Not how he created us. And it is through persuasion rather than force that he brings us to knowledge of Jesus.

Republicans have a clear path through the minefield of how-old-is-the-Earth gotcha questions. Let’s leave science curriculums to scientists.

As for Democrats: Please ditch the “war on science” talking point. It only pushes Americans apart, into their respective corners. In the two-party system, both sides need to be able to freely embrace science as a cultural common ground.

Dr. Swamidass is a professor in the Laboratory and Genomic Medicine Division at Washington University in St. Louis.

See also the Q&A and letters to the editor.

Kenneth Miller: A Textbook Biologist at the Dover Trial

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  1. What About Intelligent Design?
  2. Eugenie Scott: The Dover Trial and the Scientist Hat
  3. Michael Behe: Kafka at the Dover Trial
  4. Kenneth Miller: A Textbook Biologist at the Dover Trial
  5. Barbara Forrest: The Trojan Horse at Dover
  6. More Musings on The Killmitzer-Dover Trial

Fifteen years ago in the Dover Trial, one of the star witnesses was Kenneth Miller, a textbook biologist. Turns out that Miller does not like that title at all. He is a research scientist at Brown University in Rhode Island. One of his students graduated and became a scientist too, but then pressured and cajoled Miller into writing a textbook in biology. He never expected to be writing a textbook.

Turns out that university biologists are not rewarded for writing textbooks. Miller made no mention of this book when he went up for tenure. They might have been concerned he was waisting his time, and not writing enough papers and grants.

In 1990 when it was published, the Milller-Levine textbook was special, a break from how Biology textbooks were usually written. This may have been the first Biology textbook written by two biology professors with active research programs. The textbook was far thicker and denser with information that all its competitors. One of the salespeople from a rival derisively referred to the book as “the elephant book.” Miller’s marketing team took that as an opportunity. The put an elephant on the cover, called it the elephant book, telling teachers “an elephant never forgets!”

Biology (Student Edition) by Miller Kenneth R. Levine Joseph S.  (1995-01-01) Hardcover: Amazon.com: Books

The “elephant book” was the first edition of the Miller-Levine Biology textbook. This was the book I used for sophomore biology back in 1993.

Rather than just presenting settled answers, the textbook also raised open questions. Would Archea bacteria someday be considered a new kingdom of life? These bacteria are as different from most bacteria as these bacteria are from us! Miller’s textbook posed the question. Sure enough, that is just what scientists came to understand of them. A whole new kingdom of life.

This textbook also landed him on the Witness stand in the Dover Trial. It was Ken Miller’s textbook that was being challenged by the school board there. This is not at all what he expected. His interview with Nathan Lents and I was entertaining. Come listen in on his experience at the Trial. This biologist has many stories to tell.

After discussing the Trial, Miller recounted his debate with Henry Morris, author of the Genesis Flood. Back in 1981, over 1,000 people attended. Miller marveled at how much interest this attracted from the public. Even a Nobel Laureate would not draw a crowd like this! He was hooked.

Back then, he had no idea what laid ahead. In 2005, 24 years later, was the year of the Dover Trial.

The audio for this debate is available at the National Center for Science Education’s channel, where Miller is now Chairman of their board. Enjoy the this great debate. We are almost at its 40th anniversary, and I’m sure the science from both speakers needs a massive update.

Henry Morris in the 1981 debate with Kenneth Miller.
Kenneth Miller in the 1981 debate with Henry Miller.

Michael Behe: Kafka at the Dover Trial

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  1. What About Intelligent Design?
  2. Eugenie Scott: The Dover Trial and the Scientist Hat
  3. Michael Behe: Kafka at the Dover Trial
  4. Kenneth Miller: A Textbook Biologist at the Dover Trial
  5. Barbara Forrest: The Trojan Horse at Dover
  6. More Musings on The Killmitzer-Dover Trial

Pat Flynn moderated the exchange on the Dover Trial on his podcast. He generously released the video to Peaceful Science, and released the audio in his podcast.

The Dover Trial was fifteen years ago. Michael Behe is a Catholic biochemist, and he was one of the star witnesses in the trial advocating Intelligent Design. Scientists do not usually find themselves in court rooms. The whole experience would certainly have been disorienting for me.

In this exchange, moderated by guest, Behe gives us his take on the Trial. Here is how he puts it:

By the time the whole thing was finished I had a lot more sympathy for the protagonist of Franz Kafka’s novel The Trial, and a much sharper understanding of the term Kafkaesque: “Marked by surreal distortion.” On reflection I’ve concluded that it pretty much didn’t matter what I said on the stand, nor what any of the other expert witnesses on either side said. The outcome of the case was decided long before the trial began. It was decided when the hoopla started, when the media cast the whole affair in terms of stereotypical heroes and villains, and when the judge consulted old Hollywood films for better perspective. A courtroom is no place to discuss intellectual issues.

Behe, Michael J. A Mousetrap for Darwin. Discovery Institute Press, in press.

Read the plot of the novel at Wikipedia. Kafka’s trial certainly was surreal.

I am a computational biologist, and now find myself a friendly critic of Intelligent Design. Fifteen years ago, however, I was not sure where I stood. The Dover Trial was one of the central and defining events of my time in graduate school. So this was a remarkable opportunity for me, a chance to talk directly with one of the key participants in this moment of history.

Mike and I certainly have our disagreements. Nathan H. Lents, Richard Lenski, and I reviewed his last book, Darwin Devolves, a couple years ago. It was not a positive review. But I actually agree with Behe on more than most people expect. Still, in the end, Intelligent Design looks like a “garden path” to me.

The tension between our agreement, on the on hand, and our disagreement, on the other, makes conversation with Mike exciting for me. We are both Christians that believe God created humans through a providentially governed process of common descent. We also do not see clear biochemical evidence for God’s guidance in human evolution. So where exactly do we disagree? Honestly, on human evolution, I am not exactly sure. Maybe you can help us figure out that puzzle.

The exchange in this conversation was fun. We discussed Irreducible Complexity too. I explain why I’m not convinced by his argument, and Behe agreed to give look at and respond to what I’ve written about this in the past. We wondered about the meaning of Darwinism, and tussled over the right understanding of “exaptation.”

For all our public disagreements, and there are many, Mike was very kind to me. He agreed to read my book sometime soon, and let us know what he thinks. I am looking forward to hearing what he thinks, I really am. The Dover Trial was a flash point of conflict, but this dialogue certainly seemed like peaceful science.

Earlier this year, Mike and dialogued at Texas A&M University. If you missed that exchange, the video is available now. Though, in all honesty, hearing about the Dover Trial from Mike was a treat. Kafkaesque indeed.

The War That Never Was

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Kenneth W. Kemp (PhD, Notre Dame) is an emeritus professor of philosophy at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul Minnesota. His previous work has included “Science, Theology, & Monogenesis,” “Scientific Method and Appeal to Supernatural Agency,” “The Virtue of Faith in Theology, Natural Science, and Philosophy,” and “Religion & the Science Classroom.” The passages below have been excerpted from his new book, The War That Never Was: Evolution & Christian Theology (Cascade, 2020). He also recently reviewed The Genealogical Adam and Eve from a Catholic perspective.

One of the enduring myths of our age is that Western intellectual history includes a long-running war between science and theology (or sometimes religion generally)—a war in which the fight was once over the sphericity of the earth and its place in relation to the sun, planets, and stars; a war in which the fight is at present not over the structure of the universe but over its origin and history. The purpose of my book is to tell the history of the relationship between the paleoetiological sciences [the science of “ancient causes”] and Christian theology in a way that demonstrates [that the Warfare Thesis is profoundly mistaken]. 

The Warfare Thesis fails for three reasons. 

First, the thesis presupposes that the line between scientific matters and theological matters is fairly clear. In fact, the lines were not clear; they needed to be drawn, and sometimes redrawn in light of new concepts and new knowledge. 

Second, the Warfare Thesis suggests that the controversies (whether over substantive matters or over the exact location of lines of demarcation) saw scientists arrayed on one side of the issue and theologians arrayed on the other. The warfare, when that is the correct term at all, was often driven as much by the clash between new ideas and old ideas as it was by any clash between the defenders of scientific ideas and the defenders of theological ones.

Finally, the thesis suggests that what conflict there was was always due to the unreasoning resistance of theologians to new ideas. In fact, irenicists and polemicists, moderates and over-reachers, can be found among evolutionists and among anti-evolutionists, among scientists and among theologians. Aggressors, when the term is appropriate at all, can never be identified with science or theology generally. At most, the aggressors are particular segments of the scientific or theological community. 

The Warfare Thesis both oversimplifies and distorts the relations between science and theology on questions of the origins of the world, of biological species, and of man. Nevertheless, it would be folly to deny that there have been, and continue to be, tensions over these issues. If one is not to understand these tensions as the product of “the conflict of two contending powers,” how is one to explain them? 

Tension between science and religion generally arises as a result of the necessity of rethinking and adjusting the frontier between science and theology. The attempt to make some kind of synthesis of what we learn from the scientific method and what we learn from revelation (and from philosophical theology) is natural and proper. Sometimes, however, new scientific ideas require a rethinking of a well-established synthesis.

Rethinking is never easy and meets naturally with resistance on the part of those confident in the value of the old synthesis, suspicious of the new, and, often, not much worried about the scientific results that seem to make revision advisable. This is all made particularly difficult by the fact that each of the primary participants in the discussion of whether a new synthesis is necessary and, if so, what it should look like—the scientists and the theologians—will generally have real expertise only in their own field and thus will fail to appreciate the complexities on the other side of the frontier. In addition, there are often differences in (and differences in the assessment of) the risks of being wrong in each direction. Will greater harm be done by false scientific theories or by false religious doctrines? 

Sometimes, to be sure, the source of the problem is the unreflective conservatism of theologians (or other religious believers) who, as their fellow-believers often point out to them, have mistaken theological opinions about the truths of revelation. This unreflective conservatism has sometimes included intemperate attacks, both rhetorical and political, on science. At other times, however, the source of the problem is rather the aggressive scientism, agnosticism, or atheism of scientists (or of science-enthusiasts) who fail to distinguish between the genuine fruit of scientific inquiry and the naturalistic or atheistic philosophy in which they manage to entangle it. This entanglement often leads to scientistic or otherwise uninformed attacks on religious doctrines or even on religion itself. 

The use of the Warfare Thesis as a lens through which to view the relation between science and theology or religion invites its adherents to see as confirmations of the thesis incidents that are not that at all. It does not bring the history of science (or the nature of theology or religion) into focus. Indeed it often distorts each of these subjects. One can only hope that it will soon cease to be a theme in popular intellectual culture. 

Used with permission from Wipf and Stock Publishers: www.wipfandstock.com. The feature image is from Pixabay.

Eugenie Scott: The Dover Trial and the Scientist Hat

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  1. What About Intelligent Design?
  2. Eugenie Scott: The Dover Trial and the Scientist Hat
  3. Michael Behe: Kafka at the Dover Trial
  4. Kenneth Miller: A Textbook Biologist at the Dover Trial
  5. Barbara Forrest: The Trojan Horse at Dover
  6. More Musings on The Killmitzer-Dover Trial

It is the fifteenth anniversary of the Dover Trial, so let’s revisit Eugenie Scott’s “scientist hat.” Fifteen years ago, a public drama unfolded in Dover, Pennsylvania. In 2005, a school board tried to mandate teaching Intelligent Design (ID) in high school science class. This moved provoked a lawsuit. The Dover Trial was billed as the Scopes Trial of this century, taking place 80 years later.

The Dover Trial itself is quite a story, but it was not the whole story. At the same time, a board in Kansas decided to showcase Intelligent Design by holding hearings on evolution of their own. The Kansas Hearings did not provoke a lawsuit. Some ID leaders see the Dover Trial as a regrettable mistake, while pointing to the Kansas hearings what they really hoped for. Most scientists, however, were not happy with either Dover or Kansas.

In December 2005, the Dover Trial came to an end, and could not have been worse for ID. A Republican judge ruled against them. This was in a federal court, so this ruling impacted ID’s prospects in the textbook wars across the nation. ID would not find its way into high school biology class.

Nathan Lents and I are interviewing Eugenie Scott about the Trial. Eugenie is a scientist. From 1986 till 2014, she was the Executive Director of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), a non-profit science education organization. She played a pivotal role in engaging ID though the 1990s and 2000s.

In the aftermath of the Dover Trial, Eugenie offered an olive branch:

Properly understood, the principle of methodological [naturalism] requires neutrality towards God; we cannot say, wearing our scientist hats, whether God does or does not act.

Certainly methodological naturalism is contested among creationists, but her interpretation of it was irenic. She was offering an olive branch, and I was ready to take it. She is an atheist and a scientist, but she is not anti-religious. Perhaps there could be a way to peaceful science here.

What About Intelligent Design?

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  1. What About Intelligent Design?
  2. Eugenie Scott: The Dover Trial and the Scientist Hat
  3. Michael Behe: Kafka at the Dover Trial
  4. Kenneth Miller: A Textbook Biologist at the Dover Trial
  5. Barbara Forrest: The Trojan Horse at Dover
  6. More Musings on The Killmitzer-Dover Trial

Greg Cootsona (PhD, Graduate Theological Union) is the author of Mere Science and Christian Faith, Bridging the Divide with Emerging Adults, a book that unintentionally sparked a conversation about the place of Intelligent Design (ID) in the Church and in science. Looking beyond this controversy, I highly recommend this book for its accessible review of a wide range of key topics, along with practical wisdom for pastors, parents and students alike. Director of Science for the Church, Cootsona is both professor and a pastor, informed and deeply invested in the Church.

This book only addresses ID in one brief chapter, reproduced below, but it stimulated vigorous response from the Discovery Institute and World Magazine, to which Cootsona replied on his blog. The chapter on ID, though short and not the focus of the book, is worth looking at more closely. Some of our readers may disagree with Cootsona on some of his focused points, but he is an informed scholar who cares deeply about the Church. His analysis of Intelligent Design deserves a careful consideration by everyone.

I wonder at the hardihood with which such persons undertake to talk about God. In a treatise addressed to infidels they begin with a chapter proving the existence of God from the works of Nature. . . . This only gives their readers grounds for thinking that the proofs of religion are very weak. . . . It is a remarkable fact that no canonical writer has ever used Nature to prove God.

Pascal

At this point, I need to address those in the church who are convinced that mainstream science has gone in the wrong direction. If so, as the argument goes, there’s no theological conflict with “real science.” It’s just that science is based on its own faith, namely materialism or naturalism. For those who have questions about evolution, are there viable competitors? 

Intelligent Design, or ID, presents an alternative to young-earth creationism for those who resist the idea of evolution through natural selection. This movement has some heavy hitters in its ranks, among them Cambridge-trained philosopher of science Stephen Meyer, university biologist Michael Behe, and, perhaps most surprising, prominent UC Berkeley constitutional law professor Phillip Johnson. So it cannot be immediately written off as a farce proffered by thoughtless creationists. Allow me then to offer an overview of its principal assertions and its history, as well as an evaluation by other scientists. 

Three interlocking core convictions summarize ID, but certainly do not exhaust it as an intellectual project: 

  1. Neo-Darwinism is inherently atheistic and materialistic. 
  2. The intricate design of creation points to an intelligent designer (thus the movement’s name).
  3. Evolution cannot be sustained on scientific grounds because of its inability to address key elements in nature, such as presence of information in DNA and irreducible complexity.

To trace the major plot points in the history of ID, let’s head back to 1991 and the publication of Phillip Johnson’s groundbreaking book, Darwin on Trial. In this work Johnson analyzes the case for Darwinism— and I emphasize the term “case” since his specialization is law—and seeks to raise plausible reasons that we should not subscribe to it. The case is not persuasive, as it were, “beyond a reasonable doubt.” As a result of this work, he and others put forth the idea of “teaching the controversy,” or promoting the problems of Darwinism. (Whether this particular controversy exists remains its own controversy.) Five years later, Lehigh University’s Michael Behe released Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution, which presented his concept of irreducible complexity. He claimed that because several biochemical systems—the bacterial flagellum, for example—are too complex to evolve gradually through natural selection, they must be the result of intelligent design instead of evolutionary forces. All this (and more) became bound together in a well-financed conservative nonprofit Discovery Institute, a public policy think tank in Seattle. 

A period of growth and optimism for ID lasted at least a decade. Though its proponents didn’t have much success with professional scientific journals, they achieved some popular support. As part of their strategy—and partly due to rejection by professional scientists—they promoted their own textbook, Of Pandas and People: The Central Question of Biological Origins. But these initial forays ran into a wall with the “Dover case” in 2005, or, more accurately, Tammy Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District. In October 2004, the Dover Area School District in Pennsylvania altered its biology curriculum to teach Intelligent Design as an alternative to evolution, with Of Pandas and People to be used as a reference book. When this decision was challenged in court, presiding judge John E. Jones III adjudicated that ID was essentially religious and not scientific in nature; thus the paradigm could not be promoted in public school curriculum. This case is sometimes referred to as “Scopes Two” in reference to the 1925 court case over the teaching of evolution in Tennessee (often called the “Scopes Monkey Trial”). 

I have repeatedly asked Christians who are scientists (and thus have no commitment to atheism, nor to denying that God is an intelligent designer in the more general sense) what they think of Intelligent Design. They roundly tell me, “Greg, it just doesn’t add up, and evolutionary science has been repeatedly validated.” One academic colleague in the sciences told me that ID (and seeing atheist scientists as enemies) is a “poison pill” because the paradigm has been so discredited scientifically. 

Nevertheless many Christians continue to subscribe to ID, and one reason is that Intelligent Design brilliantly wins the naming game. In a certain sense every Christian is an IDer—we all believe that God is an intelligent designer and that “the heavens declare the glory of God” (Psalm 19:1). We also know that “since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen” (Romans 1:20). And for many Christians, ID offers a grand narrative that’s scientific but not coldly materialistic, like Richard Dawkins’s “blind, pitiless indifference.” It asserts a specific mechanism that is detectable and through which a certain handiwork can be proven. 

Theologically, though, ID runs into significant problems. For one, we don’t have to believe that God’s creation is detectable through irreducible complexity. The problems are whether “design” can be detected and proven scientifically, specifically through examples of complexity, and whether God’s creation has to be entirely supernatural. That generally is the category for something unusual, a “miracle,” “sign,” or “wonder.” But recall dual causation from chapter one—God as first cause works through secondary, intermediate, and natural causes. When God works, he can certainly use natural means. When he “knit [us] together in [our] mother’s womb” (Psalm 139:13), God acts through the processes of gestation, not supernaturally. And this hits the Achilles heel of ID. There’s a part of me that thinks that if only ID grasped dual causation, the whole paradigm would delightfully unravel. 

What kind of creator has to insert himself only at moments of irreducible complexity? It reduces our Lord to a “God of the gaps” who can be detected only when his finger (as it were) touches the places where our human knowledge is faulty. But like so many gaps in the past, this strategy is doomed when science fills in those putative “gaps” with natural causes. It isn’t that much easier philosophically.

My friend and colleague, the philosopher Ric Machuga, offered me a few reasons for ID’s philosophical failures, which I paraphrase here. The Intelligent Design argument, at its root, is an attempt to deduce “design” (and hence, a “designer”) by calculating something’s mathematical complexity. But design and complexity are not the same thing. A mathematical equation specifying the precise location of each and every atom in Mt. Everest would be extremely complex, but that is hardly a reason to believe that Mt. Everest was “designed.” On the other hand, there are only two moving parts in a pair of pliers, yet pliers are certainly designed. So too in nature—we are designed in a sense for empathy, morality, and relationships. A statement about design cannot be tied with mathematical complexity or statistical improbability. 

All in all, if I had written this book a decade ago, I would have had to spend more time on ID. Even the philosopher and theologian of science Philip Clayton, when writing his introduction to religion and science for Routledge in 2012, felt compelled to address ID and standard evolutionary theory, but that strikes me as the burst before the setting of ID’s sun. Today, if you search for news about Intelligent Design as a theory, you’ll find most is created by the Discovery Institute. 

  • To wrap up, here’s a summary of key points and action steps we can take regarding Intelligent Design: Remember that though all Christians believe that God is an intelligent designer, not all subscribe to the particular paradigm of Intelligent Design. This is a critical distinction.
  • ID has not been sustained scientifically. So be careful of promoting it. As mere Christians engaging with science, let’s be sure the scientific findings we promote are legitimate. Here conversation with scientists we know can keep us from a multitude of intellectual sins. At the same time, it’s always worthwhile to engage those thinkers who are convinced by ID and find out their reasons why.
  • We need to be careful of seeking more from the book of nature than it offers. As far as various sciences can tell us, there is no empirically detectable proof for God’s creation or existence. We may join nature “in manifold witness” (to quote the hymn), but that means neither nature generally nor human beings specifically are a proof for God. We are simply witnesses.

I have worked with questions that are properly in the realm of science. Now it’s time to turn to technology and to call out all the good there we can find. (And there’s quite a bit.)

Note: This excerpt from Greg Cootsona’s book “Mere Science and Christian Faith, Bridging the Divide with Emerging Adults” is reproduced here with permission from the publisher. Hyperlinks are not in the original version. As is reflected in the most recent printings of the book, the spelling of Meyer’s name was corrected, as was the incorrect reference to his “Oxford,” rather than “Cambridge,” training. A typo was corrected too, replacing “principal” with “principle.” We thank Stephen Matheson for identifying these errors.

A Mystery in the Weird Clouds of Venus

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Last week the discovery of phosphine on Venus sparked conversations among scientists and astronomical enthusiasts. What is the excitement really about and what could it mean for us? We were lucky to interview one of the authors, Paul Rimmer, on the Peaceful Science forum. As Rimmer puts it, “The detection of phosphine itself (is exciting). Whatever its cause…it just shouldn’t be there, and the mystery is compelling.”

This is a fascinating discovery, but the finding is not definitive. The unexpected detection of phosphine gas is a mystery that draws our attention to Venus.

The Truth and Fiction of Venus

Venus is our nearest and most Earth-like planetary neighbor. In recent decades, Mars captured our imagination, with several rovers and a possible manned mission in the works. But Venus has its own interesting history.

At first, we thought it was a planet with a giant ocean, or large swamp, perhaps a grand paradise. Decades before space travel, the 1903 Nobel Prize winner, Svante Arrhenius, described Venus in his cosmological book, The Destinies of the Stars (1918), as a largely habitable planet with temperature that may support “luxuriant vegetation.” He proposed that “only low forms of life (may be found there), mostly no doubt belonging to the vegetable kingdom.” These images of Venus are visible in science fiction, like C.S. Lewis’s Perelandra, and Olaf Stapledon Last and First Men. They depict Venus as this paradise-like escapade destination from Earth. 

CSLewis Perelandra.jpg

In C.S. Lewis’s depiction of Venus in the Space Trilogy, “The planet is covered, so far as Ransom can at first see, by a sweet-water ocean, which is dotted with floating rafts of vegetation.”

The truth ended up far stranger than the fiction. In 1967, the Venera 4 and Mariner 5 probes finally got a good look, showing that Venus was nothing like what we imagined. It was a planet of acid clouds. It may have had an ocean in the past, but now its atmosphere is permanently full of twisting and swirling clouds. If NASA ever tries to send astronauts to Venus, they might float in blimps above the clouds. The surface of the planet though, due to the thick atmosphere, is among the hottest and most crushing places in the solar system.

What’s so Exciting About Phosphine?

So, what is so exciting about finding phosphine? On Venus, phosphine might be a sign of microbial life floating up in its clouds. We’ve seen phosphine on Jupiter and Saturn, but on those planets phosphine was likely produced by non-life processes on the planets. Phosphine is the fully reduced version of the element phosphorus, with three hydrogens attached like three legs. Paradoxically, it is toxic to humans, and any life that depends on oxygen. But not all life requires oxygen, and we know that anaerobic life often produces phosphine. 

From a scientific point-of-view, this is a discovery that needs further confirmation. One possible contention would be the possibility of detecting signals of other unknown compounds that are similar to phosphine. In fact, in an interview with National Geographic, ALMA Observatory scientist, Dr. John Carpenter expressed skepticism for the “faint signal” and lack of “multiple fingerprints” to support the identification of the molecule. Similar caution was expressed by Dr. Paul B. Rimmer, who co-authored the original Nature Astronomy article.

As Dr. Rimmer says, “There’s too much we just don’t know”.

There are indeed many questions here. As Swamidass, puts it in the Panda’s Thumb,

Was the phosphine, in the end, produced by something other than life? Is there any combination of geological and chemical processes, perhaps with input from meteorites, that could produce phosphine on an ongoing basis?

Or is this really life? Did that life first arise when Venus had oceans, and then move to the skies? Was life seeded in Venus by probes in the 1970s and 80s sent from Earth? How similar or different will these microbes be than those found on Earth?

Or was it the most mundane of all options? Could there be an error in the detection? Is there another chemical that absorbs light at the same wavelength? Was there some other technical loophole that misleads us here?

Questions like these are surely going to shape research going forward. Perhaps we have put too much focus on Mars, to the detriment of exploring other worlds. What will a mission to Venus tell us about these questions? Would it be possible to return samples of those sulfuric clouds to Earth?

The Meaning of Venus

Returning our attention to Venus has other lessons for us. “Venus used to be as fit for life as earth,” with oceans and an environment much like ours. This should remind us,  Dr. Grinspoon has said, to “be good stewards of Earth”. He notes, “we will never fully understand our planet, or our own role in its evolution, in a vacuum. We need a point of comparison. Venus provides one. It is a natural laboratory to test our models and hone our understanding of extreme climate change.”

Astrophysicist, Dr. Paul M. Sutter sees Venus as a dire warning for us: “Venus became a runaway greenhouse with all the water dumped into the atmosphere trapping as much heat as possible, with the surface temperatures continuing to skyrocket,” he said, “And here’s the worst part about the story of Earth’s twisted sister. This is our fate, too.” Dr. Carolin Crawford from the University of Cambridge has explained how Earth and Venus share the same origin, yet different outcomes: “we started off with the same initial condition(s) and the paths of the two planets diverged incredibly”.  

Phosphine gas on Venus presents us with a mystery then, and it directs our attention back to Venus. We don’t have all the answers yet, and it might be the “glory of kings to seek [this] matter out.”

Elaine Ecklund: Do Science and Faith Need Each Other?

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Elaine Howard Ecklund’s most recent book Why Science and Faith Need Each Other: Eight Shared Values That Move Us Beyond Fear. This is an excellent book that maps out how a cooperative exchange between faith and science could proceed. Could there be a way for the world to interact in a way that mutually benefits both? Maybe in the common ground of virtues, embodied in Scientist Christians, there could be a way.

Dr. Ecklund is a sociologist. She has been studying the relationship between science and religious communities for decades. She been interviewing and surveying scientists, pastors, parishioners, and students, both in the United States and internationally. She has interviewed so many people about about faith and science. This book brings new information to the conversation, and in this case it also brings great wisdom.

Don’t let the academic credentials dissuade you. Ecklund sees the world as does a sociologist. It is not impersonal ideas she is bringing together. She sees people in communities. This book is an easy read, full of relatable stories and engaging quotations. She exposes a real personal dimension to the exchange between faith and science, grounded in both her personal story, but also the stories of hundreds of people she has interviewed over the years.

In the first part of the book, in three chapters, Ecklund invites us to move beyond fear, to understanding. She rightly defines science a community, emphasizing that the church and science are overlapping communities. She also encourages us to move beyond the conflict of the orgins debate, to engage a larger and more engaging dialogue between the two worlds.

Ecklund suggests that virtues which might be a meeting ground, a place where an exchange could grow between the two communities, science and the church. The next four chapters explores virtues of process: curiosity, doubt, humility, and creativity. The final four chapters explore virtues of redemption: healing, awe, shalom, and gratitude. Perhaps unsurprisingly, my favorite chapter was on shalom, which is another word for peace.

I endorse the focus on virtues. I also see virtues as a key way to build a productive exchange between faith and science. Peaceful Science is oriented around eight virtues, virtues that are certainly motivated from my personal Christian faith, but are also resonant with the values of secular science.

The book caught me off guard. I notice that a good number of the quotations were from me, from an interview with her I had forgotten a few years ago. I saw a deep commonality of experience between us, her subjects. Several times, I thought a quotation was from me, only to discover that the chapter notes indicated the quotation was actually from another scientist. This speaks a common experience and perspective many of us in science have come too. Our voice comes through clearly in this book.

This book is for the Church and I hope it gets a wide audience. It is such an important book, it is going on my short list of highly recommended books.

Join Ecklund and I today for a conversation about this important book.

Why I Left Young-Earth Creationism

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August 5th, 2020, the geophysicist known for Morton’s Demon, Glenn R. Morton, passed away. Just a week before he died, Glenn appeared on the Peaceful Science forum, sketching out the ideas behind his posthumously published Eden Was Here. Panda’s Thumb noted his passing with a biography worth reading. To commemorate his passing at Peaceful Science, we are publishing one of his articles. In this article, one of many, Glenn explains how his experience in petroleum geology caused him to leave young earth creationism to become an old earth creationist.

For years I struggled to understand how the geological data I worked with everyday could fit into a Biblical perspective. Being a physics major in college I had no geology courses. Thus, as a young Christian, when I was presented with the view that Christians must believe in a young-earth and global flood, I went along willingly. I knew there were problems, but thought I would solve them.

When I graduated from college with a physics degree, physicists were unemployable since NASA had just laid a bunch of them off. I did graduate work in philosophy and then decided to leave school to support my growing family. Even after a year, physicists were still unemployable. After six months of looking, I finally found work as a geophysicist working for a seismic company. Within a year, I was processing seismic data for Atlantic Richfield.

This was where I first became exposed to the problems geology presented to the idea of a global flood. I would see extremely thick (30,000 feet) sedimentary layers. One could follow these beds from the surface down to those depths where they were covered by vast thicknesses of sediment. I would see buried mountains that had experienced thousands of feet of erosion, which required time. Yet the sediments in those mountains had to have been deposited by the flood, if it was true. I would see faults that were active early but not late and faults that were active late but not early. I would see karsts and sinkholes (limestone erosion) which occurred during the middle of the sedimentary column (supposedly during the middle of the flood), yet the flood waters would have been saturated in limestone and incapable of dissolving lime. It became clear that more time was needed than the global flood would allow. 1

One also finds erosional canyons buried in the earth. These canyons would require time to excavate, just like the time it takes to erode the Grand Canyon. This picture was downloaded from a site which is now gone from the web. 2

I worked hard over the next few years to solve these problems. I published 20+ items in the Creation Research Society Quarterly. I would listen to ICR, have discussions with people like Slusher, Gish, Austin, Barnes and also discuss things with some of their graduates that I had hired.

In order to get closer to the data and know it better, with the hope of finding a solution, I changed subdivisions of my work in 1980. I left seismic processing and went into seismic interpretation where I would have to deal with more geologic data. My horror at what I was seeing only increased. There was a major problem; the data I was seeing at work, was not agreeing with what I had been taught as a Christian. Doubts about what I was writing and teaching began to grow. Unfortunately, my fellow young earth creationists were not willing to listen to the problems. No one could give me a model which allowed me to unite into one cloth what I believed on Sunday and what I was forced to believe by the data Monday through Friday. I was living the life of a double-minded man–believing two things.

Growing Doubts

By 1986, the growing doubts about the ability of the widely accepted creationist viewpoints to explain the geologic data led to a nearly 10 year withdrawal from publication. My last young-earth paper was entitled Geologic Challenges to a Young-earth, which I presented as the first paper in the First International Conference on Creationism. It was not well received. Young-earth creationists don’t like being told they are wrong. The reaction to the pictures, seismic data, the logic disgusted me. They were more interested in what I sounded like than in the data!

John Morris came to the stage to challenge me. He claimed to have been in the oil industry. I asked him what oil company he had worked for. I am going to share an account of this published in the Skeptical Inquirer in late 86 or early 87. It was written by Robert Schadewald. He writes,

“John Morris went to the microphone and identified himself as a petroleum geologist. He questioned Morton’s claim that pollen grains are found in salt formations, and accused Morton of sounding like an anticreationist, raising more problems than his critics could respond to in the time available. Morris said that the ICR staff is working on these problems all the time. He told Morton to quit raising problems and start solving them. “Morton chopped him off at the ankles. Two questions, said Morton: ‘What oil company did you work for?’ Well, uh, actually Morris never worked for an oil company, but he once taught petroleum engineering at the University of Oklahoma. Second, How old is the Earth?’ ‘If the earth is more than 10,000 years old then Scripture has no meaning.’ Morton then said that he had hired several graduates of Christian Heritage College, and that all of them suffered severe crises of faith. They were utterly unprepared to face the geologic facts every petroleum geologist deals with on a daily basis. Morton neglected to add that ICR is much better known for ignoring or denying problems than dealing with them.”

It appeared that the more I questions I raised, the more they questioned my theological purity. When telling one friend of my difficulties with young-earth creationism and geology, he told me that I had obviously been brain-washed by my geology professors. When I told him that I had never taken a geology course, he then said I must be saying this in order to hold my job. Never would he consider that I might really believe the data. Since then, this type of treatment has become expected from young-earthers.

I have been called nearly everything under the sun, but they don’t deal with the data I present to them. Here is a list of what young-earthers have called me in response to my data: ‘an apostate,’ (Humphreys) ‘a heretic’ (Jim Bell although he later apologised like the gentleman he is) ‘a compromiser’ (Henry Morris) “absurd”, “naive”, “compromising”, “abysmally ignorant”, “sloppy”, “reckless disregard”, “extremely inaccurate”, “misleading”, “tomfoolery” and “intentionally deceitful” (John Woodmorappe) ‘like your father, Satan’ (Carl R. Froede–I am proud to have this one because Jesus was once said to have been of satan also.) ‘your loyality and commitment to Jesus Christ is shaky or just not truly genuine’ (John Baumgardner 12-24-99 [Merry Christmas]) “[I] have secretly entertained suspicions of a Trojan horse roaming behind the lines…” Royal Truman 12-28-99

Above I say that I withdrew from publishing for 10 years. I need to make one item clear. It is true that I published a couple of items in the late 80s. The truth is that these were an edited letter exchange I had with George Howe. When George approached me about the Mountain Building symposium, I told him I didn’t want to write it. He said that was ok he would write it, give it to me and then publish it. Since it was merely splicing a bunch of letters together, it was my words, but George’s editorship that made that article. To all intents and purposes I was through with young-earth creationist (not ism yet) because I knew that they didn’t care about the data.

Giving up on Young-Earth Creationism and almost Christianity

But eventually, by 1994 I was through with young-earth creationISM. Nothing that young-earth creationists had taught me about geology turned out to be true. I took a poll of my ICR graduate friends who have worked in the oil industry. I asked them one question.

“From your oil industry experience, did any fact that you were taught at ICR, which challenged current geological thinking, turn out in the long run to be true?”

That is a very simple question. One man, Steve Robertson, who worked for Shell grew real silent on the phone, sighed and softly said ‘No!’ A very close friend that I had hired at Arco, after hearing the question, exclaimed, “Wait a minute. There has to be one!” But he could not name one. I can not name one. No one else could either. One man I could not reach, to ask that question, had a crisis of faith about two years after coming into the oil industry. I do not know what his spiritual state is now, but he was in bad shape the last time I talked to him.

And being through with creationism, I very nearly became through with Christianity. I was on the very verge of becoming an atheist. During that time, I re-read a book I had reviewed prior to its publication. It was Alan Hayward’s “Creation and Evolution.” Even though I had reviewed it in 1984 prior to its publication in 1985, I hadn’t been ready for the views he expressed. He presented a wonderful Days of Proclamation view which pulled me back from the edge of atheism. Although I believe Alan applied it to the earth in an unworkable fashion, his view had the power to unite the data with the Scripture, if it was applied differently. That is what I have done with my views. Without that, I would now be an atheist. There is much in Alan’s book I agree with and much I disagree with, but his book was very important to keeping me in the faith. While his book may not have changed the debate totally yet, it did change my life.

Copyright 2000 by Glenn R. Morton. This may be freely distributed so long as no changes are made to the text and no charges are made to the reader.

Steven Olson: The Apocalypse Factory

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On August 17, 2020, Steve Olson is discussing his book on the nuclear bomb and the Hanford site: the factory refined plutonium fuel for the bombs. He is an award-winning science writer who just authored The Apocalypse Factory: Plutonium and the Making of the Atomic Age. He is also the author of Mapping Human History: Genes, Race, and Our Common Origins, which was one of five finalists for the 2002 National Book Award for Nonfiction.

Seventy-five years ago today, on August 6, 1945, the first atomic bomb ever used in war was dropped on Hiroshima. A city was destroyed. Three days later, on August 9th, the second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. Another city destroyed. A war was ended, but at what cost?

Two aerial photos of atomic bomb mushroom clouds, over two Japanese cities in 1945
Two aerial photos of atomic bomb mushroom clouds, over two Japanese cities in 1945. Credit Wikipedia.

What led us here? What was the aftermath? Seventy-five years later, what have we learned? What remains to be learned?

Nuclear bombs are a deep paradox. On the one hand, scientific progress was seen as a white knight, the solution to all the world’s problems. The scientific discovery that uranium atoms split was riveting at the time, and landmark in history comparable to the discovery of DNA’s structure. The mad dash to create the bomb before the Germans was inspiring. Nuclear power, only possible with the knowledge gained from bombs, still holds promise as a clean, cheap and plentiful source of energy.

One the other hand, scientific progress brought us into the age of nuclear war. We could now, for the first time, destroy the entire world, including ourselves. Scientists who created the bomb were immediately troubled by its moral implications. Would scientific programs save the world or destroy it? Would we have the moral discipline to hold back from Armageddon? Would the atom ever be harnessed for peaceful purposes?

Somehow we created enough bombs to destroy the whole world several times over, yet managed to avoid ending the world even once. Are stockpiles of nuclear weapons really the picture of peace?

Could nuclear power ever provide safe power for the world? How do we clean up the thousands of tons of nuclear waste given to us by prior generations?

These are sorts of questions that this anniversary invites. Olson’s new book brings us here. He explains why he references the “apocalypse” in his book, alluding to original meaning of the term in the book of Revelations, the book of the apocalypse,

An apocalypse is a revelation — literally an uncovering — about the future that is supposed to provide hope in a time of uncertainty and fear. The plutonium from Hanford, which fueled the first atomic bomb ever exploded, in New Mexico on July 16, 1945, and the bomb dropped on Nagasaki three weeks later, revealed that the world had entered a new era. We still have not come to terms with that change.

Nuclear reactors line the riverbank at the Hanford Site along the Columbia River in January 1960. The N Reactor is in the foreground, with the twin KE and KW Reactors in the immediate background. The historic B Reactor, the world’s first plutonium production reactor, is visible in the distance. Credit Wikipedia.

In Revelations, it is Armageddon that destroy the world, but the revelation is meant to give hope with view of the future. The revelation includes prophecies of great suffering, but also that we will not be entirely destroyed. There are costs ahead, and pain we cannot avoid, but this need not end with our total destruction.

This brings Olson to the factory in Hanford, where lies a mess of nuclear waste that will require hundreds of billions of dollars clean and set right. This mess we inherit from our ancestors. Over seventy-five years, three generations have come and gone, none have cleaned the mess. We bequeath this toxic inheritance to future generations. The Hanford Site is a generational problem.

Spent nuclear fuel stored underwater and uncapped in Hanford’s K-East Basin. Credit Wikipedia.

The history of the Hanford site teaches what we already know, but from which are quick to look away. We struggle with generational problems.

Our shared societal history of race and racism bring us to the same moral questions of inheritance. What do we do with the mistakes of our ancestors? How do we own their mistakes enough to fix them? While we aren’t responsible for the injustice done by others, we are responsible for perpetuating the unjust world we inherited. Do we have the hope, though, to remember our history and pay the costs of a just world?

The warnings by scientists of climate change also bring us to these moral questions. Do we have the hope and courage to see clearly what we might bequeath on future generations? How much cost can we bear give future generations a fair starting point go forward from?

In these ways, the story of the Hanford site brings us some of the most pressing questions of our moment.

This is much is certain. We live in a fallen world. Do we hope that God’s will might be done on earth as it is in heaven? Do we want a better way? Or is the world passed down to us good enough?

Olson’s book is important for helping us remember what faces us. It is a revealing book, exposing generational problems we should should know about, but have already forgotten. In teaching us our history, this book could also give us hope. The moral questions facing us at Hanford are just like those we are finding elsewhere. These questions call us to have courage in our moment, and they reveal our nature and our character.

At Peaceful Science we are thinking about questions of ancestry, which brings us to the moral questions of inheritance. We live in a world that we inherit from our ancestors, and we pass on this world to our own ancestors. We struggle to take responsibility for the problems bequeathed to us by our ancestors, and we struggle not to bequeath problems on our ancestors. This is, it seems, the human condition.

In view of the Hanford site, the apocalypse factory, what is the revelation for us?

Maybe our generation could be different. Maybe we could be good. Maybe we can be among the generations that find a better way.