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Thinking About Evolution…and Progressive Creation

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We endorsed Thinking About Evolution as an entry point for dialogue between secular scientists and progressive creationists at Reasons to Believe. These creationists believe the earth is old, but are skeptical about evolution. John Harshman, a secular biologist, took up our invitation to dialogue with them, and writes this response to their book.

The title of the book is Thinking about Evolution, and it is co-written by four progressive creationists at Reasons to Believe. These creationists believe that the earth is ancient, aligned with the mainstream consensus, but they dispute biological evolution. The title is apt, since most of the book focuses on explaining their objections to evolutionary theory.

As a phylogeneticist, I was most interested in the contest between two models, progressive creation and common descent. To my disappointment, there’s precious little about the progressive creation theory. In fact, I’ve been unable to find the progressive creation theory stated in the book. It’s clear that it involves the fiat creation, at various points in earth history, of new “kinds”. But what are those points? What are those kinds? Nowhere is any of that specified. We are left with an undescribed hypothesis whose predictions are unclear and which thus can’t be compared to observations. 

One would of course expect any examination of those hypotheses to focus on the main evidence: the nested hierarchy of character data, especially genomic data. But there is none of that. Nested hierarchy is mentioned, once unless I have missed something, very briefly and without any real discussion.

I was forced to fall back on a single chapter, one out of twenty-five, that contains anything related to common descent. Its title is Does Evolution Explain the Fossil Record? The chapter title is unfortunately ambiguous. In evolutionary theory, the term “evolution” refers to descent with modification, including both descent from common ancestors and modifications to lineages during that descent. Descent and the causes of modification are separate questions. 

Guided evolution, in which God is the source of some modifications, is an attempted answer to the causes of modification and is compatible with common descent. However, the authors of this book reject guided evolution, for theological rather than scientific reasons, as it turns out. Much of the book is spent attempting to show that natural processes couldn’t produce what we see. But this is quite different from the question of common descent vs. separate creation; even if some features of organisms could not have come about through natural processes, that doesn’t constitute a valid objection to common descent or evidence favoring separate creation. My interest is in comparing those two hypotheses, common descent and separate creation, so we are back to that single chapter, or those portions of it that directly address the question.

So what’s the argument in that chapter against common descent and for progressive creation? While it’s true that the expectation of unguided evolution is that change should be gradual, the expectation of taphonomy and stratigraphy is that we won’t be able to find most of that in the fossil record, and this confusion of the complete history with the preserved fraction of history pervades the chapter. Further, change is “gradual” over human-comprehensible expanses of time (such as decades or even millennia) but such periods are geological instants. Eldredge and Gould, in their idea of punctuated equilibria, envisioned change proceeding by ordinary processes during geologically brief periods of thousands of years. Moreover, the rate of phenotypic change would be episodic, not constant. (Recall also that arguments against unguided evolution are not arguments against common descent; again, those are separate questions.)

Does the fossil record show changes that are too fast for known processes in evolution? In fact, the  rates of change that can be estimated from the fossil record are far slower than those observed within modern populations, and this can be accounted for by the episodic nature of evolutionary change.

The author misunderstands punctuated equilibria, tying speciation to geological cataclysms and saltations, which Eldredge and Gould did not.

The author argues that rapid diversification events are contrary to evolutionary expectations. The poster child here is the Cambrian explosion, but unfortunately we are given a straw-man description similar to that in Steven Meyer’s Darwin’s Doubt. All the modern phyla (kinds?) are said to appear in almost the same instant of geological time, without precursors. As the book puts it, “For the first four billion years of Earth’s history (the Precambrian), there was no sign of the animal life we know today. Then, within a short period of geological history, new marine animals representing almost all the body plans existing today appeared. They were fully formed and fully complex.” Almost everything in those three sentences is misleading. (A better account than Meyer’s can be found in the book by Erwin and Valentine, cited below.)

The Cambrian Explosion was not a short amount of time. It stretched over tens of millions of years.

There are Precambrian animal fossils, though of course they aren’t what “we know today”. The period over which extant body plans appeared is unclear for several reasons: “body plan” is notoriously ambiguous; “appeared” conflates actual first existence with appearance in the fossil record. Finally, the Cambrian taxa were not “fully formed”, if by that is meant that they display all the characters shown by modern species (i.e., crown groups). For example, Cambrian vertebrates have no internal bones and are very unlike modern vertebrates.

And what does this mean for progressive creation? Are we to take these “body plans”, possibly intended to be equivalent to phyla, to be kinds, with modern species descended from Cambrian ones? Or are all the species separately created variations on a theme, with God apparently unable to come up with any new themes after the Cambrian? The progressive creation theory remains too undefined to assess scientifically.

Now in fact there are transitional fossils, some of them Precambrian, some of them Cambrian. To list a couple, the Precambrian Kimberella is clearly some kind of primitive lophotrochozoan, conceivably even a mollusk, though outside any living mollusk group; the Cambrian Anomalocaris is a primitive arthropod, with jointed limbs, though only two and only on its head. It’s unclear just what the author encompasses within the Cambrian explosion. As with Meyer, the Cambrian explosion expands and contracts as convenient to the moment. At one point it’s said that “from the start of the Cambrian, new body plans were so disparate from each other that they were already separate at the phylum level”; and yet most of those body plans are unknown until 20 million years into the Cambrian, at the start of Cambrian Stage 3, in the Chengjiang fauna. Previous to that, most evidence consists of two sorts: trace fossils (tracks and burrows) and the “small, shelly fauna”, both of which begin in the latest Precambrian and gradually increase in diversity and complexity through Cambrian Stages 1 and 2. These, plus a few Precambrian body fossils such as Kimberella, are the precursors the author claims do not exist. The author’s statement neglects around 30 million years of fossil history.

A stunning depiction of the Cambrian Anomalocaris.

The author displays a serious misunderstanding of taphonomy — the science of fossil preservation — when she claims that if some soft-bodied forms are preserved that shows that no other soft-bodied forms were in existence but unpreserved. In reality there are many sorts of preservation, all differing in their biases toward preserving particular sorts of fossils. The presence of millions of years of trace fossils with no preservation of the actual organisms that made those traces should be instructive.

The author cites the major work on the explosion, Erwin and Valentine 2013, but appears to have read only a single sentence from the introduction. The work is cited in support of the claim that “research seems to indicate that the majority of animal phyla appeared during a period of about 10 million years in the middle of the Cambrian”. (Note that the explosion has here moved from the beginning of the Cambrian, where it was in the previous passage, to its middle, though the author makes no mention of the inconsistency.) The actual sentence says “a great variety and abundance of animal fossils appear in deposits dating from a geologically brief interval between about 530 to 520 Ma, early in the Cambrian period.” That may seem to say the same thing, but the period referred to here is roughly Cambrian Stage 2, a time in which trace and small, shelly fossils gradually increase, though it may extend enough into Stage 3 to encompass the Chengjiang fauna. In context, this is explicitly referring to preservation, not actual origin. And if one reads further into Erwin & Valentine, the Cambrian explosion as described by the authors extends far longer than 10 million years; picking for example Fig. 6.6, the explosion begins (gradually) in Cambrian Stage 1, around 535 Ma, and tapers off (again gradually) after Stage 5 in the Drumian, perhaps 505 Ma. Thus the explosion in that figure encompasses 30 million years and is preceded by a further 20 million years of gradual increase.

A second reference, Lindemann et al. 2019, used to put the start of the explosion at yet another date, 538.5 Ma, also shows gradual accumulation and increase of both trace and small, shelly fossils both before and after that date. See, for example, Fig. 6, and note that the record here shows none of the “body plans” mentioned in the book, only trace fossils, which the book otherwise ignores.

But do those body fossils, when they do arrive in Cambrian Stage 3, appear “fully formed”? They do not. Budd and Jensen (2000) show that almost all Cambrian forms are stem members of their phyla and classes, lacking some of the diagnostic characters of the modern taxa they represent. The various Chengjiang “lobopods” are a case in point, as they contain fossils most closely related to at least three extant phyla — Arthropoda, Onychophora, and Tardigrada — yet without a complete set of diagnostic characters of any of them.

These and other transitional fossils are discounted because they appear for the first time in the Chengjiang fauna at the same time as, for example, crown arthropods, and “Presumed ancestors and descendants should not appear simultaneously with each other”. This conflates both meanings of “appear”, biological and fossil, as well as ancestors and transitional fossils. The first fossil appearances of these taxa are taphonomic artifacts (and in fact some of them are seen earlier, as fragments, in the small, shelly fauna). And the comment about ancestors is a version of “if we came from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?”

The Cambrian explosion is not the only rapid radiation used to cast doubt on common descent. In addition the chapter mentions vascular plants, flying insects, the Triassic recovery from the end-Permian extinction, flowering plants, flowering plants (again), orders of placental mammals, and orders of birds. Only three of these are supported by references, all of them problematic. Most importantly, the use being made of the reference in each case requires acceptance of the phylogeny on which each is based, but paradoxically, each reference is being used to deny that phylogeny’s validity.

First, Soltis et al. 2008 is used to support the statement that “Approximately 97% of all angiosperms make their first appearance within a period of about 5 million years”. This is a serious distortion of the source, which actually says, “After initial, early ‘experiments’, angiosperms radiated rapidly (<or=5 million years [Myr]), yielding the five lineages of Mesangiospermae (magnoliids and Chloranthaceae as sisters to a clade of monocots and eudicots + Ceratophyllaceae). This radiation ultimately produced approximately 97% of all angiosperm species.” So in fact it isn’t 97% of angiosperms that appear during this 5 million years, only 5 lineages as broad as monocots and dicots. That 97% comes much, much later. Note also that Soltis et al. base the time span of the 5-million-year radiation on the branch lengths of a molecular phylogeny, so accepting the conclusion also requires accepting the phylogeny and concluding therefore that angiosperms are all related by common descent. The author is thus caught in a paradox, accepting a phylogeny as the foundation of its refutation.

Second, Archibald 2003 (for mammals) and Prum et al. 2015 (for birds) are used to support the claim that “Whole orders of mammals and most orders of modern birds appeared within 15 million years of the last dinosaurs being wiped out”. But Archibald makes no such claim, and in fact finds the data on ordinal appearances ambiguous, concluding “Fossils place the origins of orders around 65mya as do some molecular studies, but others suggest ordinal diversification as old as 100mya.” Further, these orders have precursors in the fossil record.

Prum et al. likewise make no such claim for birds, but an explanation of that requires further digression. If you aren’t interested in a lengthy explanation, here’s the short version: This claim, like that for angiosperms, depends both on a misinterpretation of the source and on the truth of a molecular phylogeny, which truth is then used in another paradoxical attempt to deny its truth. If that’s enough for you, skip the next three paragraphs. But if you’re willing to follow that lengthy explanation, keep reading.

First, note that drawing any conclusions from Prum et al. requires interpreting a time-calibrated molecular tree; more importantly, it requires acceptance of that tree as a valid indicator of phylogeny, as is the case with Soltis et al. Thus birds are one kind and any rapid radiation within them must happen through descent, not creation. Further, the tree doesn’t unambiguously support a claim that most avian orders originated within 15 million years of the K/T boundary.

But understanding that requires even further digression. There are three possible definitions for a taxon: it may begin at the split of a common ancestor between a taxon and its sister group (called a branch-based taxon); it may begin when the common ancestor of all species within the taxon has its first split (called a node-based taxon); or it may begin with the evolution of some diagnostic character (a character-based taxon). The first two may be determined using a phylogenetic tree, but all that can be said of the third is that it must happen some time between the other two. The number of avian orders also varies depending on which classification one goes by. So which definition of “order” does this chapter employ? We don’t know, and  how many orders originate in the first 15 million years of the Cenozoic depends on that choice. Under the branch-based definition, of 36 orders in a recent reference (Winkler, Billerman, and Lovette 2015), all but four fall within the 15-million-year window: Struthioniformes (precedes), Caprimulgiformes (precedes), Phoenicopteriformes, Podicipediformes. Under the node-based definition, only seven fall within the window: Struthioniformes, Caprimulgiformes, Suliformes, Pelecaniformes, Coraciiformes, Piciformes, Passeriformes. Seven more can’t be determined, since only one species was sampled (it takes two to make a node) and the corresponding branch-based group is old enough for there to be ambiguity: Otidiformes, Eurypygiformes, Phaethontiformes, Gaviiformes, Sphenisciformes, Opisthocomiformes, Leptosomiformes. Thus at least twenty-two orders do not fall within the window. I should also add that the time calibration used in that tree is controversial, some fossils seem to contradict it, and several relationships hypothesized in that tree are also controversial. The book, of course, must simultaneously claim those relationships both do and do not exist.

Further, what is supposed to have been created in these two radiations? Are kinds to be considered orders? The definition of “kind”, as in the Cambrian explosion, seems flexible enough to encompass every momentary need.

And how are rapid radiations supposed to be signals of progressive creation? Worse, since many of them directly follow from mass extinctions, doesn’t that make God an incompetent who frequently finds himself at an impasse and is forced to wipe the slate clean and start over? How are mass extinctions, or any extinctions for that matter, supposed to fit into a planned, progressive creation? Even discounting mass extinctions, progressive creation implies a God who’s a tinkerer, never able to create more than variations, most of them slight, on a prior theme. Even after mass extinctions, the new creation seems assembled from shards of the previous one.

Why, in fact, is there a limited set of body plans? If phyla are kinds, why is there nested hierarchy among kinds: Lophotrochozoa, Ecdysozoa, Deuterostomia, etc.? If orders are kinds, the same question arises. And if species are kinds, why is there any nested hierarchy at all?

Transitional forms are disposed of by narrowing their definition. In order to count, they must be part of a very gradual and lengthy ancestor-descendant sequence. Whales are used as a case in point. Now of course these are not ancestor-descendant sequences, or at least if they were we would be unable to tell; that’s a limitation of fossil data. But the author additionally tries to claim that they aren’t even intermediates. This is done by ignoring most of the fossils and concentrating only on two, Basilosaurus, clearly a fully aquatic animal, and Maiacetus, which was semi-aquatic, “no more aquatic perhaps than a giant otter”. But what of other fossils mentioned in the text but otherwise ignored, such as Rodhocetus, more reminiscent of a seal than an otter?

Still, the greatest problem with this chapter is that it ignores the bulk of the evidence for common descent, i.e. the nested hierarchy of extant organisms. Perhaps that’s off-topic for a chapter on the fossil record, but this is not addressed elsewhere in the book either. No place else is phylogeny, or anything related to it, even discussed. At best, the chapter is evidence against unguided evolution — though even that is dubious. So why present it as evidence against common descent? Why neglect the evidence favoring common descent?

And just what is the progressive creation model and what are its predictions? As mentioned earlier, the book never actually says. At the conclusion of this chapter, we get “The sudden proliferations of new life forms seem to be more in keeping with the events described in progressive creation models, both in the details provided and in the order in which they are presented.” This is supported by a reference to a web article, Biology’s Big Bangs by Fazala Rana, which merely repeats the same claim at slightly greater length. It contains a link that promises details on the creation model, but that link leads only to “Error 404”. So we are left with a nonexistent model that we are assured is supported by fossil evidence, with no mention that other evidence must also be confronted.

Further, even the chapter on the fossil record implies at various points that kinds are generally phyla (based on the discussion of the Cambrian explosion), orders or perhaps families (based on the discussion of other radiations), or even species (based on the appeal to punctuated equilibria and to gaps in the record).

This book has some value because it shows current thinking among progressive creationists about evolution. Unfortunately, it doesn’t engage our best understanding of evolution, and it doesn’t actually present an alternative hypothesis against which to compare common descent either.

If progressive creation is to have any hope of being tested against common descent, we need more details about what groups are claimed to be related by common descent, and what groups are not. Progressive creationists also need to disentangle the two questions —  separate creation vs. common descent and guided vs. natural evolution — or neither can be reasonably addressed.

References

Archibald J.D. Timing and biogeography of the eutherian radiation: fossils and molecules compared. Mol. Phylogen. Evol.2003; 28: 350-359.

Budd G.E., Jensen S. A critical reappraisal of the fossil record of the bilaterian phyla. Biological Reviews 2000; 75:253-295.

Erwin D., Valentine J. The Cambrian explosion: The construction of animal biodiversity. 2013; Springer Nature,

Linnemann U. et al. New high‐resolution age data from the Ediacaran–Cambrian boundary indicate rapid, ecologically driven onset of the Cambrian explosion. Terra Nova 2019; 31:49-58.

Meyer S.C. Darwin’s doubt: The explosive origin of animal life and the case for intelligent design. 2013; Harper One.

Prum R.O. et al. A comprehensive phylogeny of birds (Aves) using targeted next-generation DNA sequencing. Nature 2015; 526: 569–573

Roberts A.M., Rana F., Dykes S., Perez M. Thinking about evolution: 25 questions Christians want answered. 2020; RTB Press.

Soltis D.E. et al. Origin and early evolution of angiosperms. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2008;1133:3-25

Winkler D.W., Billerman S.M., Lovette I.J. Bird families of the world: An invitation to the spectacular diversity of birds. 2015. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.

Institutional Review Boards for Artificial Intelligence?

This article expands on Dr. Swamidass’s thoughts in a presentation at The Good AI earlier this year.

Artificial intelligence (AI) is expanding its role in society. Several legitimate concerns are rising about how AI might do unexpected and unintended damage. Is AI being used ethically? What sort of world is AI creating for us? Is this new world good? 

From everyday tasks such as asking Siri to set your alarm to more serious proceedings such as medical surgeries, AI is involved in many areas of society and that involvement is growing as technology continues to advance. For instance, within the field of medicine, what started in the 1970s as an AI system that recommends antibiotic treatment has, in the span of just three decades, turned into a tool that can predict, analyze, and identify disease. How do we know if this technology is advancing in the direction that serves society in the best and most ethical way

In the United Kingdom (UK), automated face recognition (AFR) was employed by the South Wales police force as a way to identify wanted criminals. Although seemingly beneficial, this technology received much backlash as a breach of privacy and a system that perpetuated bias. Additionally, innocent children were pulled aside on the street by policemen for questioning as seen in a recent documentary called Coded Bias. And although this AI-enabled facial recognition technology has recently been deemed illegal for the South Wales Police (and only a few cities in the United States), the door is still left ajar for the technology’s potential return. 

This is just one example of the ethical dangers ahead. Governments are moving towards regulating AI now, but the details are far from settled. How do we regulate AI without stifling innovation? 

Drawing on the history of ethics in medicine, perhaps Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) could be part of our approach.

Regulations Loom

There is a tension between regulation and innovation. Too much regulation prevents technological advancement and creativity. Where is the line between advancement and the protection of rights? What exactly is the role for the government to play?

For good reason, several governments are moving to increase regulation of AI. The EU is considering a proposal to increase the degree of government regulation of AI. When AI is used in high risk domains, the proposal would expect AI to comply with several rules designed to limit harm and ensure transparency. This is only the first of many steps that will have a large impact on the field.

In the same way, the United States is signalling that it intends to develop regulations for AI.In 2019, then-President Donald Trump released an Executive Order on Maintaining American Leadership in Artificial Intelligence. This order outlines principles that guide the American AI Initiative to ensure the United States remains competitive within the field of AI: 

“The importance of developing and deploying AI requires a regulatory approach that fosters innovation, growth, and engenders trust, while protecting core American values, through both regulatory and nonregulatory actions and reducing unnecessary barriers to the development and deployment of AI.”

The order mentions “protecting core American values.” The details of how the civil liberties and rights of the public might be safeguarded are not yet worked out.

The Memorandum for the Heads of Executive Departments and Agencies echoes the executive order. It advocated ten principles to guide implementation of AI technology: public trust, public participation, scientific integrity, risk assessment, benefit-cost analysis, flexibility, non-discrimination, transparency, safety, and coordination between agencies. 

This memorandum also emphasized continued advancement in the field of AI and reiterated the cautions about over-regulation:

“To that end, Federal agencies must avoid regulatory or non-regulatory actions that needlessly hamper AI innovation and growth … Agencies must avoid a precautionary approach that holds AI systems to such an impossibly high standard that society cannot enjoy their benefits.”

So both the US and the EU are moving to establish rules to regulate AI. Movement towards a more regulated approach to AI is slow, because no one wants to stifle innovation. We are struggling through a difficult question: how can we best ensure that AI really is “good” AI? 

Medical Research as a Guide

On our quest towards “good” AI, the history of ethics in medicine might give us some helpful guidance. Regulation in medical research wasn’t always present. There were times when research proceeded with little to no oversight or accountability. Then came the Tuskegee Syphilis Study.

From 1932 to 1972, six hundred African American men, of which four hundred had syphilis, were involved in the Tuskegee Syphilis study. For 40 years, researchers engaged in great ethical malpractice. The men with syphilis were not told of their disease.Though a simple cure was available, it was withheld from them. Some of their spouses were infected and became infertile. Several babies were born with preventable birth defects. 

When the full extent of this ethical disaster was made public, the government acted. Congress passed the National Research Act in 1974 which required institutions to form Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) to manage, review, approve, or deny research done with human participants.

These review boards consist of members from the community and operate independently of the government and research institutions. IRBs have the power to stop any projects they deem unethical. These boards were the first, large institutional change that promoted and required ethical research. 

It took time to work out ethical principles to guide IRBs. In 1979, a national commission published the Belmont Report which established three basic ethical principles: (1) respect for persons, (2) beneficence, and (3) justice. For all its strengths and weaknesses, the discussion around ethics in the 1970s was extremely influential in shaping medical research for decades to come.

We are in a similarly important moment for AI right now. The ethical conversations we are having now will shape how AI is brought to society for decades to come. 

A Role for IRBs in AI?

 Perhaps IRBs could be part of our approach to managing AI.

The government requires that every single medical study is reviewed and approved by a locally-run IRB. In the last several decades, IRBs have been an effective way of protecting the public without stifling innovation.

Just as it is in medical ethics, ethical review of AI should be required by the government, but run and managed at the local level. Any company that is bringing a new AI product into practice would bring it to an IRB for approval first. Similar to the medical field, this board would consist of members of the community as well as experts in AI. The IRBs would operate separately from the government, and have the power to approve, suggest modifications, or deny specific proposals.

IRBs, of course, are not the whole solution. IRBs are a proven mechanism of ethical oversight, but they say nothing of the exact ethical standards that should be enforced.  

What are the ethical standards and guidelines that should be adopted? The EU is piloting guidelines based on seven principles. The conversation is just beginning on this in the US. We may need something like the Belmont Report to investigate this more deeply, and articulate our way forward.

The discussion about the ethics of AI is growing, as it should. Governments are moving towards defining how AI will be regulated. The decisions made in the coming years will shape our world for decades to come.

Is evolutionary science in conflict with Adam and Eve?

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This white paper was written by Daniel Ang, Jon Garvey, David Kwon, and S. Joshua Swamidass. The featured image is from The Christianity Today article on The Genealogical Adam and Eve.

Is evolutionary science in conflict with Adam and Eve?

Christians throughout history have understood Adam and Eve as the “first man and woman” created in the image of God and placed in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 1:26-28, 2:4-25). But today, people commonly think that Adam and Eve are incompatible with modern evolutionary science.

On the one hand, some reject evolutionary science, while affirming the Genesis account of human origins.

On the other hand, others reject Adam and Eve as real people in a real past, while affirming the evolutionary account of human origins.

However, this is a false dichotomy. Critically, there is nothing in evolutionary science that conflicts with a historical Adam and Eve who are ancestors of us all. It turns out that there are a wide range of ways to understand Adam and Eve in light of science, Scripture, and theology, including both historical and non-historical views. Some of these possibilities have only recently been realized as viable options.

In fact, there are so many ways to understand Adam and Eve that it is difficult to classify all of the different models that have been proposed. Nonetheless, we find the following four questions to be a helpful starting point:

  1. Were Adam and Eve real people in a real past?
  2. Which models of Adam and Eve are consistent with evolutionary science?
  3. Do Adam and Eve sit at the headwaters of humanness?
  4. Were Adam and Eve created de novo without parents?

There are a multitude of ways to understand Adam and Eve that are consistent with modern science. Even traditional commitments about Adam and Eve need not be in conflict with evolution.

Were Adam and Eve real people in a real past?

Some scholars have proposed that Adam and Eve are literary figures that are purely mythical or archetypal.[1] The Adam and Eve narrative bears striking similarities to the Akkadian Atrahasis epic as well as many other Sumerian, Babylonian, and Egyptian texts.[2] For this reason (and several others), these scholars understand the narrative as only trying to teach theological truths, without reference to historical events or historical figures.[3] God was simply accommodating his word to the language familiar to ancient readers. A view like this would readily remove any conflict with science, simply because it no longer views Genesis 2-3 as saying anything about real-world events.

Other scholars remain unpersuaded by these arguments. C. John Collins argues that in light of the overarching narrative of the Old Testament, the Genesis 1-11 narrative must retain a historical core, even if it contains special rhetoric and literary techniques to shape the descriptions of the events.[4] In addition, other theological concerns may make a historical Adam and Eve necessary, such as maintaining the uniqueness of human beings as made in the image of God, the unity of all humans, a historical Fall from original sinlessness, and the doctrine of original sin.[5]

Which models of Adam and Eve are consistent with evolutionary science?

If we want to affirm that Adam and Eve were real people who existed in the past, how are we to make sense of that in light of the modern scientific description of human origins? According to evolutionary science, humans share common ancestry with the great apes.[6] These and other discoveries have led scientists to conclude that anatomically modern humans emerged several hundred thousand years ago in Africa from an evolutionary process.

Young earth creationists (YECs) choose to resolve this question by rejecting evolutionary science and common ancestry, understanding Adam and Eve to be the first two biological humans created de novo no more than 6,000-10,000 years ago.[7] While some YEC scholars have offered alternative accounts of how such a view could fit with the scientific evidence,[8] these models are unconvincing to the vast majority of scientists, including even the vast majority of Christian scientists.[9]

Thus, there are two extremes: young earth creationism and a non-historical Adam and Eve. The first is in conflict with how most scientists understand the evidence. The second deviates from how most Christians have understood Scripture.

But these two views do not exhaust all possibilities. Several models of Adam and Eve were previously thought to conflict with the scientific evidence, but turn out to be entirely consistent with it.

For example, it is possible for Adam and Eve to have been supernaturally created a few thousand years ago in the Middle East and become universal genealogical ancestors of us all, a model which was recently proposed by biologist Joshua Swamidass.[10] Another alternative is to understand Adam and Eve as living several hundred thousand years ago. Fazale Rana and Hugh Ross of Reasons to Believe propose that Adam and Eve were the first Homo sapiens and lived 100,000-200,000 years ago, whose descendants interbred with Neanderthals to account for the observed genetic diversity among today’s humans.[11] Finally, philosopher and theologian William Lane Craig favors an even more ancient Adam, identifying Adam and Eve as Adam and Eve as two members of the species Homo heidelbergensis, which existed starting about 700,000 years ago.[12]

Do Adam and Eve sit at the headwaters of humanness?

An important doctrine in the Christian understanding of humanity is monogenesis, the idea that all humans are descended from a single couple.[13] Some scholars have argued that monogenesis serves as the foundation for equality between all nations and races, as well as the universal common experience of being fallen and in need of redemption.[14] Monogenesis is one of the commonly cited reasons for retaining a historical Adam and Eve.

But for a long time, most thought that there was a dilemma between (1) monogenesis and (2) a recent Adam and Eve. In other words, evolution and modern science forces us to choose between either:

  1. Adam and Eve living recently (less than 10,000 years ago), but not ancestors of us all.
  2. Adam and Eve as ancestors of us all, but living in the ancient past (over 100,000 years ago).

Some argued that this last option was also in conflict with the evidence.[15] In this way, traditional readings of Genesis and traditional doctrine were thought to need revision due to an irresolvable conflict with science.[16]

However, it turns out that this is a false dilemma, based on a mistaken understanding of the scientific evidence. As we have mentioned above, even if Adam and Eve were as recent as 6,000 years ago, we all could descend from them.[17] So the dilemma between a recent Adam and Eve and monogenesis is resolved.

Still, some prefer to think that Adam and Eve were ancient.[18] The salient point here is whether or not there were beings with “human-like” qualities or “humanness” outside the Garden and before Adam and Eve.[19] If one believes that these human-like beings need to descend from Adam and Eve, then the first couple would have to be placed further back in history.[20] This shows how the debate between a recent and ancient Adam and Eve revolves around interesting questions about what truly defines human behavior. It is not always the case that theologians and biblical scholars are interested in the same questions as modern scientists.

Were Adam and Eve created de novo or chosen?

Historically, most thought that if evolutionary science were true, then Adam and Eve could not have been created de novo without parents.[21] However, this is another false dilemma. Both could be true at the same time.[22] God could have created a population by a process of common descent, and then specially created a couple within that population. A one-off, isolated miraculous scenario cannot be falsified by scientific evidence, just as many Christians would agree that the resurrection of Jesus is not “falsified” by the empirical evidence that people normally do not rise from the dead.[23]

If one affirms evolutionary science, why still believe in de novo creation? Some, like pastor Tim Keller, believe that it is necessitated by the text of Genesis 2.[24] De novo creation may also be required if one commits to a particular view of the image of God or to establish some sort of original moral righteousness in Adam and Eve which cannot be achieved by natural processes alone.[25]

What questions remain?

The four key questions we have covered help to illuminate the many possible understandings of Adam and Eve. However, they hardly exhaust the range of questions and issues that are raised in these discussions. Different models may answer certain questions more clearly while raising others. Here are some examples:

  1. In recent Adam and Eve models, how are we to understand the theological status of people outside the Garden? Do they possess the image of God?[26]
  2. How do different understandings of the image of God interact with different models of Adam and Eve?[27]
  3. How does an ancient Adam fit with biblical genealogies which may establish a connection between Adam and Israel?[28]
  4. How do we understand original sin and the Fall in each of these models?

Many of these questions do not yet have definite answers. They remain an open invitation for theologians, scientists, and anyone else interested in the conversation. We should know not to expect easy solutions. Nor should we prematurely leap to simplistic narratives of “conflict” or “harmony” between science, Scripture, and theology. In the end we are all approaching a grand question that makes this conversation captivating and important: what does it mean to be human?

References and Footnotes

Alexander, Denis. 2014. Creation or Evolution: Do We Have to Choose? Monarch Books.

Barrick, William D. 2013. “A Historical Adam: Young-Earth Creation View.” in Four Views on the Historical Adam, edited by M. Barrett and A. B. Caneday. Zondervan Academic.

Baum, David A., Cécile Ané, Bret Larget, Claudia Solís‐Lemus, Lam Si Tung Ho, Peggy Boone, Chloe P. Drummond, Martin Bontrager, Steven J. Hunter, and William Saucier. 2016. “Statistical Evidence for Common Ancestry: Application to Primates.” Evolution 70(6):1354–63. doi: https://doi.org/10.1111/evo.12934.

Beeke, Joel R. 2015. “The Case for Adam.” in God, Adam, and You: Biblical Creation Defended and Applied, edited by R. D. Phillips. P & R Publishing.

Collins, C. John. 2011. Did Adam and Eve Really Exist?: Who They Were and Why You Should Care. Crossway.

Collins, C. John. 2013. “A Historical Adam: Old-Earth Creation View.” in Four Views on the Historical Adam, edited by M. Barrett and A. B. Caneday. Zondervan Academic.

Craig, William Lane. 2021. In Quest of the Historical Adam: A Biblical and Scientific Exploration. S.l.: Eerdmans.

Enns, Peter. 2012. The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say about Human Origins. Baker Books.

Garvey, Jon. 2020. The Generations of Heaven and Earth: Adam, the Ancient World, and Biblical Theology. Wipf and Stock Publishers.

Giberson, Karl. 2008. Saving Darwin: How to Be a Christian and Believe in Evolution. Harper Collins.

Grudem, Wayne. 2017. “The Incompatibility of Theistic Evolution with the Biblical Account of Creation and with Important Christian Doctrines.” in Theistic Evolution: A Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Critique, edited by J. P. Moreland, S. C. Meyer, C. Shaw, A. K. Gauger, and W. Grudem. Crossway.

Harlow, Daniel C. 2010. “After Adam: Reading Genesis in an Age of Evolutionary Science.” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 62(3):17

Kemp, Kenneth W. 2011. “Science, Theology, and Monogenesis.” American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly 85(2):217–36. Retrieved November 8, 2020 (https://www.pdcnet.org/pdc/bvdb.nsf/purchase?openform&fp=acpq&id=acpq_2011_0085_0002_0217_0236).

Kidner, Derek. 2008. Genesis: An Introduction and Commentary. IVP Academic/Intervarsity Press.

Lamoureux, Denis O. 2009. Evolutionary Creation: A Christian Approach to Evolution. ISD LLC.

Lamoureux, Denis O. 2013. “No Historical Adam: Evolutionary Creation View.” in Four Views on the Historical Adam, edited by M. Barrett and A. B. Caneday. Zondervan Academic.

Loke, Andrew Ter Ern. 2016. “Reconciling Evolution and Biblical Literalism: A Proposed Research Program.” Theology and Science 14(2):160–74. doi: 10.1080/14746700.2016.1156328.

McKnight, Scot, and Dennis R. Venema. 2017. Adam and the Genome: Reading Scripture after Genetic Science. Brazos Press.

Middleton, J. Richard. 2017. “Humans as Imago Dei and the Evolution of Homo Sapiens – Articles.” BioLogos. Retrieved November 14, 2020 (https://biologos.org/articles/humans-as-imago-dei-and-the-evolution-of-homo-sapiens/).

Rana, Fazale, and Hugh Ross. 2015. Who Was Adam?: A Creation Model Approach to the Origin of Man. RTB Press.

Reeves, Michael. 2011. “Adam and Eve.” in Should Christians Embrace Evolution?: Biblical and Scientific Responses, edited by N. C. Nevin. P & R Publishing Company.

Sanford, John, Robert Carter, Wes Brewer, John Baumgardner, Bruce Potter, and Jon Potter. 2018. “Adam and Eve, Designed Diversity, and Allele Frequencies.” The Proceedings of the International Conference on Creationism 8(1):200–216. doi: 10.15385/jpicc.2018.8.1.20.

Swamidass, S. Joshua. 2019. The Genealogical Adam and Eve: The Surprising Science of Universal Ancestry. InterVarsity Press.

Walton, John H. 2015. The Lost World of Adam and Eve: Genesis 2-3 and the Human Origins Debate. InterVarsity Press.


[1] Enns (2012). Other notable figures in this camp include Daniel Harlow (2010), Denis Lamoureux (2009; 2013), Karl Giberson (2008:11-12), Alister McGrath, and J. Richard Middleton (2017).

[2] Enns (2012:53-55).

[3] Harlow (2010) argues that other features of the narrative indicate non-historicity, such as irreconcilable differences between the two creation accounts of Gen. 1:1-2:3 and 2:4-25, an anthropomorphic picture of God, resemblance of features of the Garden Eden with the desert tabernacle and Jerusalem temple, and the character of the talking snake.

[4] Collins (2011, chs. 2-3; 2013).

[5] Grudem (2017) criticizes theistic evolutionary models (which may not affirm a historical Fall or reject monogenesis) as jeopardizing the notion of Christ’s representation of believers which leads to their forgiveness and redemption. Another common objection is that without a historical Adam, Paul’s arguments in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15 would not make sense (Reeves 2011).

[6] More technical overviews of the evidence for common ancestry include Baum et al. (2016).

[7] We use the term de novo to mean that Adam and Eve were created instantly and supernaturally “out of the dust” without biological parents, instead of through purely natural processes.

[8] Sanford and Carter (2018) is an example.

[9] In fact, some young earth creationists such as Todd Wood admit that evolution is an “extremely successful scientific theory.”

[10] The key here is understanding the difference between genetic and genealogical ancestry, making a distinction between “humans according to science” and “humans according to Scripture”, and allowing the possibility that Adam and Eve’s descendants interbred with humans outside the Garden. Genealogical ancestry spreads rapidly in time, such that anyone living a few thousand years ago who left a reasonable number of grandchildren would be the ancestors of everyone living today. See Swamidass (2019, especially chapter 14) or this blog post (Story Three) for a shorter overview. Other scholars who have proposed similar models include Andrew Loke (2016) and Kenneth Kemp (2011).

[11] See Rana and Ross (2015) for a more detailed account of this model. Note that there have been multiple versions of the RTB model to take into account new scientific evidence. See this blog post and this discussion thread for more details. An even more ancient Adam is suggested by philosopher and theologian William Lane Craig, who identifies Adam and Eve as two members of the Homo heidelbergensis, a species which existed starting about 700,000 years ago. As current genetic evidence cannot detect bottlenecks in the human population older than about 500,000 years ago, this model is also consistent with the scientific evidence.

[12] See also the upcoming book by Craig (2021).

[13] Biblical passages often cited in support of this doctrine are Acts 17:26 (“And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth”) and Romans 5:12-19, where Paul argues that just as sin and death entered the world from one man (Adam), it is redeemed by the actions of one man (Jesus).

[14] Collins (2011, sections 3e and 4b). See also Beeke (2015).

[15] For example, see McKnight and Venema (2017).

[16] To make matters worse, some argued that even an ancient Adam and Eve could not be ancestors of us all. This also turned out to be false, as current scientific methods cannot detect bottlenecks older than about 500,000 years ago (see note 11). The RTB model is also a viable alternative (see the previous section and note 10).

[17] See note 10 above regarding the recent Adam and Eve model proposed by Swamidass.

[18] As in the RTB and Craig models.

[19] Paleoanthropologists observe evidence of human-like behavior reaching back to at least the Upper Paleolithic period (10,000-40,000 years ago) and even earlier.

[20] On the other hand, we encounter no such need if we believe that Adam and Eve were special because of their theological and vocational status, rather than being the first on Earth who possess unique behavioral and cognitive abilities. Another alternative is to posit that after Adam and Eve were created, there was a way for people outside the Garden to become represented by Adam and Eve, as in the models of Derek Kidner (2008:28-30) and Denis Alexander (2014:289-294, 300-304).

[21] Until recently most scholars who proposed a historical Adam and Eve while affirming evolutionary science tended to assume that they must have been chosen from a pre-existing population of hominids. This is the case for the models by Alexander, Kidner (see note 17), Kemp, and John Walton (2015, Proposition 21).

[22] Swamidass (2019, chapter 7).

[23] Other objections to de novo creation are discussed in Swamidass (2019:85-89). See also these forum threads for additional discussion.

[24] This also seems to be the view of Wayne Grudem.

[25] This forum thread may be a useful discussion on other reasons for why de novo creation is important.

[26] Some of these questions are tentatively explored in chapters 14-16 of Swamidass’ book.

[27] There are several different major understandings of the image of God, such as the structural and vocational/relational understandings (Collins 2011, section 4a).

[28] Garvey (2020:147-155). While gaps in ancient genealogies are possible, gaps of tens of thousands of years (as what must be the case if Adam lived several hundred thousand years ago) make them practically meaningless.

A Compromise on Creationism

This article was originally published in The Wall Street Journal on March 5, 2021. See the Q&A on this article to learn more.

Next week the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, or CHEA, which scrutinizes other accrediting organizations, will consider whether it should continue to recognize a young Earth creationist group. This might seem like a classic instance of the tension between religion and science. But the real issue is whether Americans can live alongside each other while disagreeing about the most important issues.

The Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools, known as Tracs, describes itself “as a national institutional accrediting agency for Christian post-secondary institutions, colleges, universities, and seminaries.” Founded in the late 1970s, the group today accredits more than 80 schools around the world. That includes Bob Jones University, which grants science degrees that require course credits in creation science.

The Tracs statement of faith includes conventional Christian beliefs about the “unique divine, plenary, verbal inspiration and absolute authority” of the Bible and the “redemptive sacrifice of Jesus Christ. ” It also holds the “special creation of the existing space-time universe and all its basic systems and kinds of organisms in the six literal days of the creation week” to be true.

In the early years, Tracs had its applications for recognition denied by the U.S. Education Department. It finally gained federal recognition during the George H.W. Bush presidency. Eventually, in 2001, Tracs was recognized by CHEA. The council periodically reviews member institutions to assess whether they meet its standards. CHEA has been soliciting comments to guide its decision about renewing Tracs.

As a medical doctor and research scientist, I reject young Earth creationism as a valid scientific theory. Like most scientists, I perceive a readily observable fact: Earth is billions of years old. And many of my colleagues believe that CHEA shouldn’t have admitted Tracs in the first place.

But a 2019 Gallup poll showed that 40% of American adults “ascribe to a strictly creationist view of human origins, believing that God created them in their present form within roughly the past 10,000 years.” As much as the scientific community disagrees, creationism is not going away.

Rather than reject Tracs or passively renew its membership, CHEA should offer a constructive solution that holds the group to higher standards on science education. There is a complex thicket of concerns to negotiate: creationist belief statements, academic freedom and national norms. A committee that includes mainstream scientists could gather information and develop detailed recommendations for the institution to adopt. Absent some principled compromise, a renewal of Tracs membership should be delayed or denied.

One helpful principle is transparency. As a matter of academic freedom, scientists should tolerate institutions that teach creation science. But deviations from national norms in a science curriculum need to be prominently disclosed, tracked and reported. In practice, that means transcripts that clearly state which courses and degrees include creation science. Credit from courses that include creation science should not be used toward science degrees. Nor should they be eligible for transfer to secular institutions.

Institutional tolerance of dissenting views ought to be a two-way street. If Tracs is recognized, it should also give more space to students and faculty who disagree over key issues. Tracs member institutions operate by belief or faith statements, with varying levels of tolerance for dissent. A reasonable process would not require creationist institutions to modify their faith statements. But to align with national norms, Tracs should defend the academic freedom of those who dissent from scientific creationism.

Identifying and implementing the correct remedies will take time, and may still be controversial among Tracs membership. But they should understand the significant benefits for their universities if brought into alignment with national educational norms.

The U.S. public arena is secular but also pluralistic. Americans disagree with one another, and those differences matter. Avoiding conflict by unconditionally renewing Tracs’ membership is an unacceptable approach. But we need a more constructive solution than simply excluding those with whom we disagree—even if they seem obviously wrong, as creationists do.

The best solution is to respect Tracs institutions’ unique character while holding them to high academic standards. Insisting on policies of transparency and academic freedom might even lay the groundwork for change in future generations.

Dr. Swamidass, founder of Peaceful Science, is an associate professor of laboratory and genomic medicine and biomedical engineering at Washington University in St. Louis.

Q&A on “A Compromise on Creationism”

I recently authored a Wall Street Journal (WSJ) editorial, “A Compromise on Creationism.” This editorial stimulated quite a bit of discussion. Several responded publicly and privately. Steve Pettit, the president of Bob Jones University (BJU), responded with a letter in the WSJ. I also received quite a few emails expressing strong opinions in different directions. 

It is great to see a growing conversation. This particular conversation would benefit from more information. What exactly was the proposal? What is accreditation and why is it important? What is academic freedom, and how does it interact with belief statements at religious institutions? These are the sorts of questions I want to respond to here.

Questions on the Proposal

The article is behind a paywall, so how and when will it become public?

My WSJ article is behind a paywall. But 30 days after publication, I can publish it here. So check back soon. In the meantime, do not believe everything you hear about what I wrote. There have been a lot of rumors floating around that are not true. 

What is the key question you are raising and addressing?

I am raising this question: should secular and non-religious institutions accredit and recognize young-earth creationist institutions? This question requires us to navigate the tensions between belief statements, academic freedom, and national norms. I am answering the question “yes,” but arguing that accreditation policies need to be guided by principles of transparency and academic freedom.

What prompted your article?

CHEA is currently reviewing TRACS, and will decide in October 2021 whether or not it will renew its recognition of TRACS. This was the news item that prompted my article. I also submitted a third-party comment to the committee reviewing TRACS.

Wait, what? What are CHEA and TRACS?

TRACS is the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools, a national institutional accrediting agency that accredits (some) Christian colleges, institutions, and seminaries. Most accrediting agencies are recognized by CHEA, the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, which periodically reviews accreditors to ensure their compliance with standards. 

Are there any other relevant institutions? What are their relationships to one another?

The universities and colleges accredited by TRACS are interested in how this proceeds. President Pettit’s response to my article puts Bob Jones University (BJU) at center stage, and BJU makes for an instructive test. 

BJU is accredited both by TRACS and by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC), a regional accreditor with a secular mission. For example, The University of Texas system is accredited by SACSCOC. As it happens, SACSCOC is currently reviewing BJU to determine if they will continue to accredit BJU.

So the key organizations we are discussing are CHEA, TRACS, SACSCOC, and BJU, but there are others too. 

Here are some of the key dates and relationships between CHEA, TRACS, SACSCOC, and BJU. CHEA and SACSCOC are secular. TRACS and BJU are creationist.

What do you mean by “creationism”?

In the context of this article, I am discussing scientific elements of Young Earth Creationism (YEC) exclusively.

I am not addressing Intelligent Design (ID) or Old Earth Creationism (OEC) or any component of YEC that appears in non-science courses, such as theology, philosophy, or hermeneutics courses. I am not discussing “creationism” broadly construed to describe the beliefs of all Christians, including myself, that affirm the doctrine that God created all things. 

What did you propose? What was the compromise?

Creation science is not aligned with national norms in science education. Some scientists argue that institutions that teach creation science should not be accredited. 

In my WSJ article, I advocated for a principled compromise to be negotiated before TRACS’s recognition by CHEA is renewed. I offered a compromise. Creation science should be tolerated by secular institutions, but that (1) deviations from national norms should be transparently disclosed, and (2) the academic freedom of dissenters from creation science at these institutions should be protected. 

Academic freedom and transparency are principles to which secular accreditation institutions are already committed. I wrote that accreditors should consult with mainstream scientists to gather information and negotiate better policy, guided by principles of transparency and academic freedom. 

Questions on Accreditation

Are you arguing against the accreditation of creationist institutions? Are you trying to “cancel” Christian colleges?

No, quite the opposite. I am arguing that secular institutions should accredit and recognize creationist institutions. This has made my proposal controversial among many secularists.

In contrast, many of my colleagues in science argue that CHEA should not recognize TRACS, and that SACSCOC should not accredit BJU (and other similar universities). 

Still, I am arguing that secular institutions should make space for creationist organizations, but they should do so while still holding them to “higher standards” aligned with “national norms.”

Why are you demanding that creationist institutions be held to “higher standards”?

Creationist institutions should be held to the same standards of academic freedom and transparency as all other academic institutions. Some creationist institutions’ practices are not currently consistent with these standards, so this would mean holding them to higher standards than they are currently practicing. 

What do you mean by “national norms”?

I mean exactly what TRACS itself means: “practices, terms, or policies which are common in American higher education.” TRACS requires all the institutions it accredits to “meet national norms in the areas of curriculum; programs; faculty credentials; and measured student learning outcomes at the course, program and institutional levels.”

This is about science curriculums, not beliefs. National norms do not apply to content of belief statements or personal beliefs, but they do apply to curriculumns. So I am not asking creationists to change their beliefs in order to be accredited. 

Whether we disagree with creation science or not, everybody agrees that creation science is not aligned with national norms in science curricula. While no one should label or denigrate creationists, secular institutions are not obligated to accept credit from courses that deviate from national norms

Is funding tied to secular accreditation? Are you attacking their livelihood? 

Federal funding to creationist colleges does not depend on accreditation by secular institutions. TRACS is recognized by the US Department of Education (USDE) independent of CHEA. For this reason, if CHEA did not recognize TRACS, all the institutions TRACS accredits would still be eligible for federal funding to support their students. Likewise, if SACSCOC chose not to accredit BJU, they would still be eligible for federal funding because they are accredited by TRACS.

What will creationist organizations lose if they are not accredited by secular organizations?

Creationist institutions do not require accreditation by secular organizations to serve their mission. In fact, the two creationist institutions in question (TRACs and BJU) were not accredited or recognized by secular organizations for most of their respective histories.

TRACS was founded in 1979, but only recognized 22 years later by CHEA in 2001. BJU was founded in 1927, and for the vast majority of that history they were opposed to the very idea of accreditation. BJU changed their position on accreditation very recently, and were accredited for the first time in 2006 by TRACS. Surprising many observers, BJU sought and obtained accreditation in 2017 by SACSCOC, a regional secular accreditor that also accredits, for example, the University of Texas.

Secular accreditation of these institutions is fairly recent, and TRACS and BJU functioned for decades without it. In fact, BJU was strongly opposed to accreditation for generations. Their funding and mission is not tied to accreditation by CHEA or SACSCOC. 

Questions on Academic Freedom

What is academic freedom? 

Broadly speaking, there are three aspects of academic freedom, depending on whether we mean freedom for (1) institutions, (2) professors or (3) students. Secular institutions emphasize the freedom of professors, with some attention to the freedom of students.

I, personally, am advocating for academic freedom for professors and students, whether they are in secular institutions or in creationist institutions, whether I agree with them or not.

In contrast, some YECs tend to emphasize institutional freedom for YEC institutions, but in the context of secular institutions they emphasize academic freedom for YEC students and professors instead. In effect, professors should be free to teach ID and creation science at secular institutions, on the one hand. One the other hand, YEC institutions are free to fire professors that dissent from scientific creationism.

Should accreditors care about academic freedom?

In October 2012, CHEA issued a joint statement with the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) on accreditation and academic freedom. This statement affirmed “the role that accreditation plays in the protection and advancement of academic freedom.”

How do belief statements interact with academic freedom?

Belief statements are one way that religious organizations limit academic freedom of students and professors at their organizations. In 2018, the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU) also affirmed the AAUP’s statement of academic freedom, adding guidance of their own about the fair application of belief statements. I recommend The Christian College and the Meaning of Academic Freedom (Ringenberg, 2016) to learn more.

In contrast, secular institutions do not operate by belief statements. The AAUP’s 1940 statement (along with its update in 1970) on academic freedom, however, acknowledged the tension between belief statements and academic freedom. Most administrators and scholars, secular and religious, are unfamiliar with how belief statements interact with questions of academic freedom. This unfamiliarity might be why these violations of academic freedom were overlooked in the last decade. 

Should we allow belief statements?

We absolutely should allow religious organizations to maintain and enforce belief statements. In the United States, belief statements are protected by the “freedom of association” clause of the First Amendment. The belief statements themselves are not the problem.

However, institutional belief statements are in tension with academic freedom, and they need to be applied with fairness, consistency, and transparency.

What do you mean by fairness, consistency, and transparency?

For example, all the accrediting institutions we are discussing require universities to make all their policies, including statements of faith, publicly available, so prospective students, staff, and faculty know in advance what is expected of them.

Likewise, if a belief statement is changed to be more restrictive, then those hired before the change cannot be held to the new restrictions. It would be unfair to impose a new belief statement retroactively on those who joined the university when an old belief statement was in effect.

Ken Turner, former faculty at Bryan College, summarizes a common pattern,

One problem is that many institutions have a doctrinal statement that says one thing, but the administration (often on a whim without due process) wants to move the goal post of “what’s in” and “what’s out.”…This [infringes] on academic freedom because it circumscribes that freedom beyond the official documents of the institution and subjects [professors and students] to the private interpretation and interests of a sitting president or board.

Such machinations violate the policies of both accreditors (TRACS and SACSCOC) as well as CHEA. One reason I wrote the WSJ article was to draw attention to this deviation from accreditation guidelines, and ask accreditors to protect vulnerable faculty and students. 

How common are these violations of academic freedom in creationist institutions?

Here are a few examples. 

William Dembski is a well known critic of evolutionary science, but he believes the earth is old and understands Noah’s flood as a local, not a global event. He was a professor at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (accredited by SACSCOC) when they retroactively required him to affirm a global flood. As Dembski explains,

My questioning the universality of Noah’s flood meant I was a heretic, or at least not suitable for teaching at Southern Baptist seminaries, and thus I’d need to be clearing my desk immediately—unless my theological soundness could be quickly reestablished.

In response, Dembski was forced to violate his conscience by recanting his belief in a local flood. This unfair application of belief statements violated his academic freedom and severely impacted him and his family. 

More recently, around 2014, Answers in Genesis published the Tenets of Creation (TOC), and lobbied administrators at colleges to commit to these tenets.

Bryan College (accredited by SACSCOC), where Dr. Turner was a professor, also signed on. The overreach by the administrators even left YECs like Todd Wood on the outside, because he did not toe the line on scientific YEC. The academic freedom policies and I’m advocating, to fairly apply belief statements, would have protected these faculty.

Returning to BJU as a case study, it appears that BJU broke these rules. Without noting it transparently at BJU, Pres. Pettit signed BJU on to the TOC and also substantially narrowed the range of beliefs they tolerated in 2014. It appears they applied these changes retroactively to faculty, by issuing “position statements,” rather than altering their belief statement. Moreover, BJU’s policy on academic freedom (and its history of changes) is confidential and not available to the public on their website. A leaked memo about SACSCOC’s initial review of BJU in 2016 suggests that accreditors were asking about academic freedom, but SACSCOC did not ensured BJU would make public its academic freedom policy.

Addressing the larger problem, the precise way the TOC interacts with polices at these colleges it not transparently disclosed. The colleges that signed on need to explain and disclose transparently how the TOC changed and affects their policy. Accreditors should enforce the rules, and protect the academic freedom of dissenters from overreach by administrators.

Questions on Transparency

Did you call for creationist college students to be “tracked and reported”?

Absolutely not. I asked TRACS to follow its own transparency policy by tracking and reporting which college courses (not students) among its member institutions deviate from national norms. 

So what did you propose about transcripts?

As one example of transparency, I suggested that science courses that deviate from “national norms” should be labeled transparently on transcripts. This was just a starting point for negotiation, not an ultimatum. This policy is intended to be very easy for universities to work around.

The standard of “national norms” comes from TRACS itself, and even creationists agree that scientific creationism is not consistent with national norms. Whether they are from accredited institutions are not, secular institutions are not obligated to accept these credits.

In making this suggestion, I am merely asking for TRACS to develop and apply policy around its own standards. If they have a better approach that still assures us that their member institution’s science courses are aligned with national norms, I am willing to hear it.

How would this apply to the Bio 300 class at BJU?

In my comment to CHEA and my WSJ article, I noted one example of a class that might fit this policy: Bio 300 at BJU. The president of BJU, Steve Pettit responded that this course does not teach creation science, and that BJU does not teach creation science in any of its courses.

If it were true that BJU does not teach creation science, why is President Pettit objecting to the policy? If all the science courses at BJU are aligned with national norms, the policy I suggested does not apply to them.

More likely, BJU actually is teaching creation science in science courses. Their course catalogue describes Bio 300 as “Evolution and Origins,” a course which promises to evaluate “the theories of evolution, the intelligent design movement, and special creation” and to explore “a creationary model of the diversity of life.” 

In that case, on this policy, BJU would have two options. They could transparently label the course on transcripts as “deviating from national norms.” A better approach would be to change the designation of Bio 300 from biology to philosophy or religion. Then the course would not be a science class, and would not need to be labeled.

This is just one policy suggestion, and not an ultimatum. I’m open to other ideas that preserve their right to teach creation science, while also ensuring the science courses are aligned with national norms.

Are you trying to brand creationist students with a “scarlet C”? Are you intending to “dox” and “punish” creationists?

Absolutely not. I did not (and do not) advocate “labeling,” “branding,” or “doxing” creationist students or faculty. I oppose that as an outrageous and invasive violation of student rights and welfare. 

I am, to the contrary, motivated by concerns for student welfare at YEC institutions. We expect that some of these students are uncertain about YEC creationism. However, BJU does not guarantee privacy to dissenting students or clarify what deviations from their position statement on creation they will tolerate.

Dissenting students are extremely vulnerable to being labeled and shunned by administrators, faculty, staff, and fellow students at BJU. Accreditors should be concerned about ensuring policy to protect these students from punishment. 

Questions on the Reaction

Why were the public reactions from creationists so negative?

This proposal protects students and faculty from overreach by administrators, such as Steve Pettit at BJU. For this reason, as my WSJ article notes, my proposal will be controversial among the membership of TRACS. The negative reaction is expected. However, I am not asking them to do anything different. They have the right to run their institutions as they see fit. My appeal is not directed towards them.

Even then, many of the negative reactions appear to have misunderstood or misrepresented my article and proposal. The WSJ article is behind a paywall, which has made it easier to mischaracterize. As the proposal is better understood, I expect many creationists will see the benefits to them. 

Still, it will be difficult for those most to benefit to be publicly clear about their support. The policy I am advocating protects professors and students at YEC institutions from overreach by administrators. Those most to benefit are most vulnerable.

Regardless, YEC institutions are not the ones who need to be convinced. The key audience is a different group.

Why was the Intelligent Design movement so negative?

The early articles published by the Discovery Institute mischaracterized my WSJ article. I still appreciate the attention and am glad they got the word out.

The policies advocated are very much in their interest. Academic freedom at secular institutions is why many ID scientists, such as Michael Behe, are tolerated and employed at secular institutions. A more robust protection of academic freedom would have protected WIlliam Dembski a decade ago at Southwestern. Institutional protection of dissent from YEC at YEC institutions would protect several vulnerable ID professors from unfair treatment.

As they take time to think about what is at stake, it is possible that other thoughtful voices in ID will understand those advantages and give a more positive response. Regardless of what they do, the ID movement was not my audience either.

Who are you speaking to then?

I am appealing to secular accreditors, CHEA and SACSCOC. Secular institutions are not obligated to accredit or recognize creationist organizations that do not meet their standards.

I am asking them to work with scientists to find a principled compromise on creationism that navigates the conflicting demands of creationist belief statements, national norms, and academic freedom.  Of course, creationist groups such as BJU and TRACS are invited to participate in negotiating the right compromise.

If and when such a compromise is reached, creationist institutions may respond by choosing to adjust their policies or to operate without secular accreditation. This is their choice, and they can do as they see fit.

How Can Others Weigh In?

How can comments be made to CHEA regarding TRACS?

The third-party comment period is closed. Between now and October 2021, you may contact members of the CHEA board with any comments pertinent to their decision regarding TRACS.

How can comments be made to SACSCOC regarding BJU?

SACSCOC has a way to submit unsolicited information. Whether you agree with me or not, ensure your comments are pertinent to accreditation of BJU, or other colleges they accredit, and submit your comments as the linked document instructs.

In accordance with our error correction policy, several corrections to this article were made in the first 48 hours. The spelling of the acronym SACSCOC was corrected. Readability of some paragraphs was improved, and and a specific reference to TRACS and SACSCOC were removed from the discussion of BJU.

On March 23, a false claim about Dembski at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary was corrected, and a quote from Dembski was added. Dembski was asked to recant his views on a local flood. The original version of the article erroneously stated all faculty were forced to recant belief in an old earth. Several faculty at SWBTS, including leadership, affirm an old earth. I want to thank Ted Davis for pointing out this oversight.

On March 29, 2021, “Bryan University” was corrected to “Bryan College.”

Author’s Guide and Call for Submissions

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Peaceful Science (PS) is building trust between scientists and the public. One way we build trust is by encouraging dialogue across differences, and exploring how science interacts with the grand question: What does it mean to be human?

Call for Submissions

We are soliciting factually sound and well-researched content that bridges between academics and the public and has not yet been published elsewhere. We accept articles in wide range of styles, including:

  1. Science journalism written to inform the public.
  2. Opinion articles presenting a position to persuade others with different views.
  3. Dialogue responding to other notable organizations, ideas, events, individuals, or news items.
  4. Excerpts of books related to our mission and topic areas.
  5. Reviews of books, movies, and TV series related to our mission and topic areas.
  6. Written interviews with scholars or other notables.
  7. Excerpted transcripts from notable audio or video statements.

We encourage pre-submission inquiries. Soon we will have a form here, but for now send us an email with:

  1. A few sentences describing the idea for your submission.
  2. Any relevant news hook or dates that will guide the timeline of publication, and inform us to the timeliness of the submission.
  3. Your name, affiliations, and qualifications, along with a 1-2 sentence bio.

The best submissions will bridge across differences, engage meaningfully with science, interact with different points of view, and bring different fields into dialogue. 

Topic Areas

  1. We are soliciting submissions that explore how science intersects with the grand question of what it means to be human. We are approaching this question from several angles, for example:
    • Artificial Intelligence, Neuroscience, Consciousness and Minds
    • Anthropology, Human Exceptionality, and Animal Intelligence
    • Ancestry, Genetics, and Human Origins
    • Race, Inheritance, and Justice
    • Beauty, Perception, Art, and Fiction
    • CRISPR, Genetic Engineering and Gene Editing
    • Transparency, Academic Freedom, and Research Ethics/Integrity.
  1. We are also soliciting submissions that bridge across differences, whether it be race, human origins, or other sticky places of conflict. Submissions can be a proposal for ways forward, or seek to increase understanding to difficult audiences.

Our Audience

Our community includes scientists, scholars, and thinking members of the public that represent a large range of different personal beliefs and non-beliefs.  We have the shared goal of advancing science in a fractured society.

Manuscripts should be submitted as a Word document and include a brief bio from the author, in addition to in-text citations or footnotes.  All submissions will be carefully reviewed by our editors, and you will be contacted via email. We use Google Docs as our editing platform, so you can easily review and respond to our edits.

Format, Tone, and Length

We are committed to a peaceful approach to science and faith dialogue, especially with those who hold different views. 

  • We strive for a professional tone while also including several entry points for people new to the conversation or with less technical training.
  • Use Zotero to include references, cite all sources and ensure arguments or critiques are supported by evidence, and use footnotes to expand on more technical points. 
  • Use descriptive headers and subheaders to break up your writing.
  • Clarify any words, phrases, concepts used by experts in your field or followers of your religious tradition/non-tradition
  • Use inclusive and inviting language that is free from words, phrases or tones that reflect prejudiced, stereotyped, condescending or discriminatory views of particular people or groups.
  • Controversial topics should always be approached with humility, acknowledging and accurately characterizing alternate views.
  • At our discretion, we may add links and images of related content to submissions. Unless these adjustments risk altering the author’s meaning and intent, we may do this without notifying the author.

The length for articles submitted to the PS blog is open-ended. About 1,000 words is a good place to start, though we also welcome longer deep-thinking essays. Our editorial team will work with you to develop your idea, tighten any loose ends and/or make your draft more concise.

The Editing Process

The editorial team will look over your draft and make edits and comments on the Google Doc. When deemed helpful or necessary, your article may be sent out for review by other scholars. In general, an overview of the editing process will typically follow the outline below:

  1. Presubmission inquiry 
  2. Inquiry accepted by editor
  3. Submit a draft of the article to us.
  4. If we decide to take the article, an editor will work with you to improve the article.
  5. Once accepted, we will give you a publication date, and release it accordingly.

By submitting your article draft, you are agreeing to allow us to publish the article in final form on our website, and to convert into other formats for distribution.

My Response to the ASA’s Apology

In these divided times, conflicts can be difficult to resolve. With this in mind, allow me to commend and thank The American Scientific Affiliation (ASA)[1] for acting with true integrity, as seen in their open letter of apology.

It takes real courage for an institution to transparently admit mistakes and seek to correct them. The leadership this letter demonstrates is an example for all of us to follow.

With great gratitude, I accept their apology. Speaking on a personal level, the effort and sentiment represented by their letter has been, and is, deeply humanizing.  

There is a story to tell about what happened, and how it resolved. For now, the ASA’s letter gives all the critical details. More information is available in an editorial note on our website and our forum

Today, I am renewing my membership with the ASA. They hope to work with Peaceful Science in the future, and we certainly look forward to working with them.

The ASA’s Apology

My Response


[1] The American Scientific Affiliation, or ASA, was founded in 1941 as a professional society of Christians in the sciences. It is one of the most important academic organizations at the interface of science and the Christian faith.

An Imagination Game to Bridge Divides

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Let’s play an imagination game. Consider these situations. How would you respond? How would you build bridges across these significant divides?

  1. Student after a university human evolution class asks: “So were Adam and Eve Australopithecines?” 
  2. A colleague posts about a STEM job search at their [religiously affiliated] institution on social media: “Apply! Our department is fun and we get along! The Catholic Jesuit stuff doesn’t affect what we do or teach. At all.” 
  3. Question at a museum talk: “I’m all for clean water and air, sure, but haven’t the earth’s resources been given to us to use as we see fit?” 
  4. Comment in an online forum: “Evolution is racist ideology. Scientists want us to believe that some people are less evolved than others, but I know that we are all created in God’s image.” 
  5. Question at a meeting with tribal representatives: “Previous scientists’ work with us has been exploitative and harmful to our people and to our sacred lands. Why should we allow your research to proceed?”
  6. Question from [a] high-school age student in a classroom engagement: “If what science says about the origins of the universe and the origins of life are true, doesn’t that mean that everything is without purpose?” 
  7. Question at a public talk: “Who decides if your work with human remains is ethical? How do you respect the religious beliefs of the dead?” 
  8. Question from a 2nd grader in a classroom engagement: “Do animals have souls?”

These are the scenarios to which Robert O’Malley, Project Director for the Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion (DoSER) invites us to consider at this year’s AAAS Annual Meeting. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) is the world’s largest association of scientists. DoSER is a program within AAAS that has been fostering dialogues between scientific and religious communities about science, technology and society since 1995. 

Presentation at the 2018 AAAS meeting, not the 2021 virtual meeting that is the subject of this article (Photo: Rob O’Malley | AAAS-DoSER)

In the audience was Dr. Arthur Hunt, professor of University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, Food and Environment, who participated in the workshop and commented that,

“some of these questions/scenarios deserve more introspection than others. Collectively, they help to illustrate the challenges when it comes to education and engagement. Some are borne of misunderstanding (of science and also theology) that is hard to grapple with, and others are almost hostile towards science. On the other hand, they illustrate nicely the challenges when it comes to science-faith engagement. Rising up to these challenges is important for many reasons. For example, as was learned in the AAAS session entitled “How Thinking About Religion Can Increase Racial and Gender Diversity in Science”, large numbers of Black and Hispanic scientists are Christians, and there is concern amongst these scientists about anti-religion biases in the STEM ecosystem. In addition, religion is central to many communities that are underrepresented in STEM fields. If we are to get to a more diverse STEM workforce, then the scientific community is going to have to come to grips with these issues.”

The session referred to by Hunt was delivered by other researchers including Dr. Elaine Howard Ecklund, whom we interviewed in our podcast

The entire meeting took place on a virtual platform last week, featuring speakers across the disciplines of science from around the world. The topic of science communication and engagement with religious publics was part of the program because

“we believe most scientists and educators, whether completely secular or spiritual or religious in mindset, really do want to be inclusive and ensure that everyone feels welcome to participate in science discourse and science learning.” 

said O’Malley, in an email to Peaceful Science. 

“If someone is coming to our workshop they probably already understand on some level that religion and spirituality is relevant to good science pedagogy, or even for just talking about science with family and friends and others, and are looking for some insights or guidance on how to do this well.”

He emphasized the need for scientists to be strategic, be respectful, and be human in their engagement with the faith communities. Scientists ought to be intentional and considerate about who they’re interacting with; affirming people’s dignity by being respectful; be ready to listen unassumingly and practice cultural humility, as well as to acknowledge that science is after all a very human endeavour, O’Malley explained. 

“Identity, values and culture matter in science just as they do for all human endeavors.”

The public discourse concerning faith and science will put us in challenging circumstances. One way to prepare ourselves for such encounters is to engage in a mindset approach to hypothetical scenarios. That’s where his imagination game comes in.

There is, of course, no one single right answer to these questions, but perhaps there are some really wrong answers. 

“The idea is not to come up with the perfect pre-scripted answer, but to get a chance to try out this mindset approach with fellow attendees in a collaborative way.”

O’Malley said. Rather, these scenarios are meant to promote ongoing conversation and encourage scientists to consider the nuances that come with engaging in this intersection. 

He shared about a particular challenging scenario that he encountered while being a Teaching Assistant for a biological anthropology class. At the end of the class, one student came up to him and asked, “Were Adam and Eve Australopithecines?” (the first question in the imagination game). He responded in a way that considered  both the scientific knowledge of the time and the biblical account in Genesis that explicitly talks about human beings and not something else. 

“Whatever the Australopithecines were, we can say with confidence that they were not modern humans, and we can also say they were not exactly like any nonhuman ape living today. Exactly what their relationship is to modern humans, or to other apes in the past or present, is something scientists in the field are very interested in, and in fact is one of the central questions of the class.” 

O’Malley also explained that while topics like what it means to be a “modern human” will be explored, it wouldn’t necessarily be resolved.

“I want to answer in a way that I believe is accurate from a scientific perspective, that acknowledges and respects where this person is coming from, and tries to make them feel comfortable to continue in the class.” O’Malley explained. “Of course, my answer at the time isn’t the only constructive way to respond to this question but I think [it] embodies the core principles well.”

Apart from teaching, O’Malley himself was engaged in scientific research in the field of evolutionary biology, anthropology and zoology. When asked about how his own interaction with faith affected the way he led the DoSER initiative, O’Malley said,

“I was raised Catholic. Though I don’t identify as such now, I believe this had a real and positive impact on my development as a person and how I think about science engagement today. For example, whenever I’ve heard science discussed in Catholic contexts, both as a kid growing up and as an adult, including when I’ve done guest lectures at seminaries and such about my research, it’s generally with a lot of enthusiasm…something that can enrich faith and spirituality rather than necessarily be in conflict.  That feels like a healthy and constructive approach to me.”

The workshop ends with a very important takeaway. Regardless of having a completely secular, or religious mindset towards science, we cannot underplay the fact that we live in a very diverse ecosystem. To some, the only way to promote this sense of awareness is by telling their own stories and actively participating in community engagements. In order to be inclusive in this ecosystem, we need to take into account the person’s whole self, that is, their identity, values, culture, and religion. This seems to be the only way forward for nurturing a diverse scientific ecosystem.

So let’s play the imagination game. How would you respond to each of these scenarios?

Alysson Muotri: Neanderthal Brains in a Bottle

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So this is not exactly a Neanderthal brain in a bottle, but it gestures in that direction. Here, we are finding a new way of understanding what makes us human and how we became human.

Alysson Muotri just published a study of Neanderthal brains that seems to be taken straight out of science fiction. His team took a mutation from Neanderthals, and edited into human cells. These cells were grown up into “brain organoids” in a dish.Because of that single mutation, the brain organoids looked differently and worked differently too.

How did they pick the mutation? How did introduce it into the cells? What are organoids any ways? These questions are the starting point.

But greater questions loom. What does this experiment really tell us about how we became human? There may be more questions here than answers.

In the end, we are approaching the grand question again, this time from a very new direction. Come wonder about this question with Dr Moutri, Dr. Lents and myself. What does it mean to be human?

Two black and white panels. The top one shows circular blobs of tissue, the bottom one rougher shapes.

Brain organoids containing an archaic gene variant (bottom) were smaller and more roughly textured than human organoids (top).Credit: C. A. Trujillo et al./Science

William Lane Craig: An Exchange with Ken Ham

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An entertaining and instructive exchange unfolds between William Lane Craig and Ken Ham, the leader of Answers in Genesis. This was a back and forth, on several platforms, one of which was our podcast. Following the links bellow will take you to each response.

It all begins with a facebook post. According to Ham, William Lane Craig “pseudo-intellectual arrogance that mocks God and his Word and instead exalts the word of fallible.” Craig “represents one of the major problems with much of the church,” because he interprets Genesis in a different way than does Ken Ham.

Ham took some heat for this statement. A couple weeks later, he followed up with a longer explanation of his reasoning.

Dr. Craig first responded to Ham in an interview at Peaceful Science. What a great conversation it was, and surprising in many ways. Looking past the ad hominem, it turns out that William Lane Craig agrees with Ken Ham on some important points.

We also talked about the Elephant and the blind men, each one taking ahold of a different part of the beast. They each really have hold of something legitimate. It seems that so much conflict can be traced to these blind men forgetting that what they see is not the whole view.

I ended with a playful question:

if you could take a time machine and go back to the first century and meet Jesus and ask Jesus, “Is evolution true? Is the theory of evolution true? What would Jesus say?

Of all things, Ken Ham’s answer focused on Craig’s answer to this question. What a great place focus. Ham misunderstood Craig to be denying Jesus’s deity, but he was just articulating orthodox Christianity, as stated in the historic Creeds.

So at the Council of Chalcedon the church fathers affirmed that Jesus is truly man and truly God. And as a true man he had a complete human nature, namely a human body and a human soul (that is to say, a human mind). So in his human nature Jesus’ human mind was limited and finite just as ours was even though in his divine mind (the mind of the Logos, the second person of the Trinity) Jesus was omniscient. So the person is omniscient with respect to his divine nature but he’s not omniscient with respect to his human nature. And that is not (contrary to Ken Ham) some sort of heretical view. That is Christian orthodoxy!

What an interesting exchange indeed. Ken Ham, it seems, is unacquainted with orthodox Christian beliefs about Jesus. He was confused, and thought that Craig was denying Jesus’ deity.

Christian tradition is important, and it is one reason I left Young Earth Creationism many years ago. Even if committed to literalism, I was surprised to find that literal readings of Genesis in the past were totally different than the scientific creationism of Answers in Genesis.

So this is an exchange to follow. This was the time that Ken Ham and William Lane Craig discussed evolution and Jesus at Peaceful Science.

On February 20, 2021 a small typo correction was made, inserting a missing word, “Ken Ham’s answer.”