Scientists Ask, “Why BioLogos?”

Scientists Ask, “Why BioLogos?”
At this time, I am no longer working with BioLogos. I have the greatest respect for Dr. Francis Collins and their effort to engage religious communities with evolutionary science. It still made sense to part ways with them.

Scientists enter science to “do science,” not to engage the public. I am a scientist for this reason too. I love my scientific work. Still, engaging the public about our work is extremely important too. Science should be a place of common ground for all of society. And we need better ambassadors of science.

To this end, Dr. Francis Collins, the current director of the NIH (as of 2016), started BioLogos in 2007 to help Christian communities understand evolution in the context of their beliefs. I am honored to announce I will be serving as a BioLogos speaker for the next 2 years, helping religious communities understand the science behind evolution.1 The summer of 2016, with Templeton Foundation funding, BioLogos is launching a speakers bureau to help educate religious communities about evolution. A highly qualified group of 20 speakers was chosen in a selective and competitive process. This group includes highly distinguished theologians, historians, philosophers, and scientists.

I decided to join this effort to educate the public about the science of evolution. I do this is a service to both the scientific community and the public. This is an unusual type of service, so I want to explain this decision to my colleagues here.

Questions from Scientists

1Why not just focus on your scientific work? Why waste time explaining evolution to the public? Why not wait till you have tenure and are fully established as a scientist?

We need better ambassadors of science. We need ambassadors that can explain how science works and what we discover, without using science as a weapon against religious communities. Science should be one of the great common grounds of modern society. It is too beautiful to use as a weapon. If we scientists ourselves do not step up to explain science, especially in areas of great controversy, we cannot blame the public for their ignorance or confusion. I hope to be one of these ambassadors.

On a personal note, I do not have tenure (as of 2016), but I do have my footing as an independent scientist. Currently, I am on track for tenure at the #2 Pathology department in the country. My first R01 was funded by the NIH, my second R01 was just scored at 6%, and I will soon graduate my first PhD student. My focus, as always, will remain on my scientific work. At the same time, I am very thankful for the support of my department and colleagues. Their acceptance gives me the ability and confidence to serve the public in this way.

At the same time, more practicing scientists need to explain science to the public. The only way non-intuitive and controversial parts of mainstream science will be understood is if practicing scientists become culturally-sensitive ambassadors of science to the public.

2 What is your scientific expertise and why are you qualified to communicate mainstream science to religious audiences?

I am a practicing computational biologist with both an MD and PhD, and working in a Laboratory and Genomic Medicine division at Washington University in Saint Louis. My current scientific contributions, detailed in over 40 papers, are focused on mathematically modeling biological systems. Of particular relevance, the current incarnation of anti-evolution arguments2 emphasize computational biology and information theory. I am specifically qualified to evaluate, understand, and refute (when necessary) these anti-evolution “proofs.”

Alongside this scientific expertise, I am also a Christian. This is helpful because it builds trust with skeptical religious audiences. Our common ground in faith is enough for many to learn science, even in controversial areas, from someone like me.

3 You (and BioLogos) believe in “evolutionary creation” or “theistic evolution.” Isn’t this just creationism? Where do you stand on Intelligent Design and creation science?

BioLogos believes that God created the world through an evolutionary process. This view is compatible with mainstream science. As the widely respected National Center for Science Education (NSCE) puts it, ‘“creation” and “evolution” do not occupy competing categories, but are complementary ways of looking at the universe.‘ In this sense, I sometimes refer to myself as a “creationist” too.  Theistic evolutionists, like myself, agree scientists (not politicians) should continue to control science curriculums. At the same time, students (especially religious students) benefit when evolution is separated from atheism in education.  Evolution, of course, is not intrinsically atheistic. We believe that God was “involved” somehow in evolution, though there is great diversity in our belief about “how” God might been involved.

However, the BioLogos position is not “creationism.” Creationism has a long history of (1) disputing the strong scientific evidence for evolution, (2) making up new versions of science to scientifically prove creation, and (3) rooting religious faith on scientific arguments. BioLogos does none of this, and is one way many harmonize their belief in creation with mainstream science.  As many of 40% of scientists are theistic evolutionist too, so this position is quite common among our scientific colleagues.

BioLogos has a long history of explaining the shortcomings of both the Intelligent Design (ID) movement and creation science. Consequently, BioLogos is firmly within mainstream science. Speaking for myself, I am not convinced by ID arguments or creation science, even though I believe God created us all. In particular, I totally oppose political efforts to alter science curriculums (e.g. Dover and Kansas). At the core of the  Creation Wars (and ID)  is a deep controversy about the definition of “science.” Public confusion about how mainstream science works (and its limits) fuels the debate, and highlights why the work of BioLogos is so important right now.

4Do religious people and communities really want to understand evolution, something so many of them reject?

Religious communities, even those that reject evolution, are eager for meaningful dialogue with scientists. I have seen this firsthand through my work with the AAAS Science for Seminaries Program, Veritas Forums, and Intervarsity. In particular, religious leaders are often highly educated and open minded. Their education, however, is not usually in science. How can we expect them to understand and appreciate the non-intuitive features of mainstream science (like evolution) unless we patiently and kindly explain how science understands the world?

To be clear, not all religious communities will accept evolution as true, even when they understand. Even those that reject evolution, however, can be very motivated to understand the science behind evolution. This is a very important common ground for us in science education. Our goal should be to help everyone understand the science and evolution, even if acceptance of evolution is not always possible. Even if the scientific case is solid, some will still reject evolution for theological and philosophical reasons to reject or question evolution. My goal is to help religious communities understand what they are rejecting,

With that explanation, I hope the value of my effort here is clear. More importantly, hope more scientists will join me in engaging the public too. We need better ambassadors of science.


Show 2 footnotes

  1. The featured graphic is evolutionary tree of life from another site (that I cannot, unfortunately, endorse for religious audiences).
  2. Examples of this flavor of argument are Kirk Durston, Doug Axe and William Dembski.

S. Joshua Swamidass

I am an assistant professor at Washington University in Saint Louis where I run a computational biology group. I'm also part of the dialogue between science and religion, through my work at BioLogos, the AAAS Science for Seminaries Program, and Veritas Forums.