A Commentary on Biology and Theology

Robert Sylwester

Editorial Note: Robert Sylwester is an emeritus professor of education at the University of Oregon who focuses on the educational implications of new developments in science and technology. He has written 20 books and curricular programs and 150+ journal articles. His most recent books are A Biological Brain in a Cultural Classroom (2003, Corwin Press) and How to Explain a Brain: An Educator’s Handbook of Brain Terms and Cognitive Processes (2005, Corwin Press). The Education Press Association of America has given him two distinguished achievement awards for his syntheses of cognitive science research, published inEducational Leadership. He has made 1400+ conference and inservice presentations on educationally significant developments in brain/stress theory and research. He writes a monthly column for the acclaimed Internet magazine Brain Connection(www.brainconnection.com). He is an active member of Grace Lutheran Church (LCMS), Eugene, Oregon. (A side note: His father, F. W. J. Sylwester, was the first president of Concordia College, Portland.)

 

Several people asked me what I thought about Erich Von Fange’s new book, In Search of the Genesis World: Debunking the Evolution Myth (2006, Concordia Publishing House). I’ve now read the entire book (including the 30 pages of citations). I thought others might also be interested in my thoughts on the book, since I expect that CPH will vigorously market it.

I met Erich in 1945 and came to like him very much. He was my dorm counselor and PE teacher when I attended Concordia Seward from 1945 to 1949. I’ve had no contact with him since. He’s a Concordia Ann Arbor emeritus professor, but the book doesn’t indicate in what department—or what his background is to write a credible book in this field. He seems to have been involved in some Biblical archeology digs and studies. I suspect that Erich has simply had an extended interest in this issue, since he’s published two previous related books. He has obviously read much in this field (albeit narrowly, I believe) and has developed strong personal convictions.

His principal conviction in this issue is that he “accepts the Bible as a faithful framework for (our understanding) of all the past” (329), and this past encompasses a relatively young created earth and biosphere.

His general assessment of science can probably be summarized with five of many similar gratuitous comments that permeate the book: “I listened to an Evolutionist speak with all the fervor of a snake oil salesman” (187); “Young taxonomists are trained like performing monkeys” (212); “The above is total nonsense of course” (249); Darwinian biology “led to the emergence of Naziism” (262); and “If in the future, Christians are burned at the stake, Evolutionists will light the matches” (265). Erich takes no prisoners in his general distain for modern science and especially biology.

It’s a difficult (400 page) book to read because it’s quite repetitive, data-packed and meandering. It often takes careful reading and some sophistication in scientific writing to distinguish between what he presents as credible factual information and conjecture. For example, “plants and animals were genetically changed by the Fall” (51) is simply presented uncritically as a comment by a Creationist source without further explanation or proof. CPH should have done a better editorial job on the manuscript, given that the target readers are conservative Christians with (I presume) a limited understanding of science. I’ve long worked in the field of interpreting cognitive neuroscience to folks with a limited understanding of biology, and so I realize how difficult it is to do this properly and how important it is to do it right.

The sources used in this book are troubling. For example, of the 28 citations listed for the chapter titled “Wrestling with the Dinosaur Mysteries,” 22 were from Creationist sources, 5 were simply newspaper or popular magazine articles, and only one (Carl Sagan’s 1977 book, Dragons of Eden) came from an evolutionary scientist (and an astronomer at that). Since dinosaurs play an important role in the Creation/Evolution controversy, one would certainly expect a more balanced analysis in a book like this. Did the author read anything written by evolutionary scientists who actually study the dinosaur phenomenon?

The book draws heavily from sources beyond 25 years in a field in which many important developments have occurred during the past 25 years. For example, I checked two randomly selected pages of the bibliography (382–83) and found that 58 of the 61 citations were from before 1980 and only 3 from since then. More troubling, chapter 13 focused on the relationship between Darwinian biology and such cultural issues as psychology and education (my field), and 29 of the 38 citations were from before 1980. The psychology books cited were published in 1890, 1939, 1966, 1968 and 1978—in a field in which almost everything of current significance has occurred during the past couple decades. The book contains absolutely nothing on cognitive neuroscience despite the fact that the neurosciences play an important role in contemporary Darwinian biology. The book has nothing to say about the spectacular advances that have occurred in neuroimaging technology and the profound impact they will have on our understanding of the development and regulation of cognition and other biological phenomena.

You’ll look in vain for any indication that the author read and responded to such prominent evolutionary theorists, researchers and interpreters as Ernst Mayer, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Mark Ridley, William Calvin, Robert Wright, Niles Eldridge and others who have written recent acclaimed books related to evolution that are accessible to folks with a limited understanding of science.

Two additional key omissions: The book doesn’t explain either modern dating technologies or genetics, except to pretty much dismiss them as irrelevant. It’s difficult to imagine a book for general readers about creation/evolution issues that doesn’t clearly explain dating or genetics—given that it’s not that difficult to explain such concepts. For example, the book seems to assume that everyone knows what C14 means in dating.

What the book does discuss at great length, however, are scientific hoaxes that have occurred over the years. For example, an entire chapter focuses on the 1912 faked discovery of Piltdown Man—although this and other hoaxes simply prove that science is self-correcting, in that the scientific community catches faked discoveries (eventually if not immediately). Whenever an important scientific discovery occurs, other scientists in that field replicate the investigation and/or carry out their own analyses of the published data. The result is that the professional career of any such hoaxer is ruined. It’s thus not a good idea to fake research findings, as the South Korean cloning research group recently discovered. Given the many thousands of scientific investigations occurring at any time and the oversight procedures currently used by the scientific community, it seemed odd to me that the book dragged out 100-year-old Piltdown Man to make its point that evolutionary science is a fraud. Why not something far more current? Is it because the author isn’t current in his studies?

Further, if hoaxes are so important to the issue of credibility, why doesn’t the book at least acknowledge somewhere that theology has historically proffered at least as many hoaxes as science. If there’s but one way to salvation, why are there so many competing religions and denominations and subdenominations within these religions? Think of all the theological and political contention just within the LCMS! Must be a lot of theological hoaxing going on, but the Elmer Gantrys of the past and unscrupulous televangelists of the present don’t get explicitly mentioned (let alone criticized) in the book.

Science is a search for the truth that assumes missteps along the way. Evolutionary science has come a long way since Darwin’s original work 150 years ago, and a responsible critique of it should focus on current beliefs and discoveries.

“As a grand and glorious viewpoint, evolution is as easy as can be, but in getting down to any actual details, difficulties begin” (253). Here again, the book doesn’t mention that one could also wonder about the missing “details” in creation theology. For example, why would an all-powerful, compassionate God create humans who would give birth to innocent infants with horrible deformities that would insure a short painful life—or allow committed Christians to die via a lingering painful terminal illness? Why would God create humans with a biological predisposition to homosexuality if it’s so abhorrent? You can’t have it both ways—demand every explanatory detail from science and offer no such explanatory details from theology when it veers into biology.

“We must not convey the impression that Creationists are agreed on every detail about the early world, even though the Biblical framework is fully accepted by them. On many questions, there is simply inadequate evidence, or we do not know how to read the evidence that lies before our eyes. It is freely granted that many questions may never be satisfactorily answered, nor is there any need to do so, other than to satisfy our curiosity about the past” (244). This seems like a major cop-out to me, given the book’s insistence that Darwinian biology clear up all its mysteries in order to gain any credibility among Christians. Again, you can’t have it both ways—require a high evidence level of others and write that simple faith is sufficient for your position—but that it has to be the correct faith.

“We must ask honestly to what extent is evolution the foundation and cause of (scientific) advances. Ask yourself, which major discoveries can you name that arose out of Evolutionary theory? Can you name even one?” (360). Well, how about everything in modern genetics for a starter? The discovery of DNA 100 years after Darwin’s original theory pretty much explained the mechanisms that regulate Darwinian genetics, and the scientific advances that have occurred during the past 50 years in genetics (such as the recent and current genome projects) are mind-boggling.

For another related example, consider modern medicine. All government-approved medications must be based on a sound underlying biological principle—and all modern medications are based on Darwinian principles. Further, they’re tested on animal models before humans can use them—and why test human medicines on animals if there’s no genetic relationship? One could further ask why folks get a flu shot every year if viruses don’t mutate. It would seem to me that if someone believes that Darwinian principles of biology are a huge hoax perpetrated by a cabal of evil scientists, the last thing such a person would want to do is to take medications or flu shots that emerged out such biological principles. But such folks do.

Our youngest son is a research biologist who studies infectious viruses at the Oregon Health Sciences University, and he’s also a member of an LCMS church. He says that he sees biological evolution occurring every day in his lab work—that it’s foolish to argue that it doesn’t exist.

The lack of understanding and rejection of Darwinian biology is pretty much an issue that is centered within the conservative U.S. Protestant community. It’s not much of an issue elsewhere in the world, where it’s simply accepted as the best explanation of biological phenomena. And as the book reported, the Catholic Church determined a decade ago that Catholic theology could accommodate Darwinian principles (although it fudged on such disembodied issues as soul). Many committed Protestant Christians similarly have no problem with such an accommodation.

What perhaps concerned me most was that this book perpetuates an historic anti-science bias within the conservative Christian church that has continued from the Galileo embarrassment to the present. The book inappropriately implies a vast scientific conspiracy—that science is seemingly a monolithic Satanic operation determined to destroy Christianity. Further, the book is replete with snide gratuitous remarks about science and scientists that disparage the honest marvelous work of many thousands of committed scientists. What’s the point of that?

Several of you, the author and I have worked within university communities for decades, and we know that dissent is common and encouraged among faculty and between faculty and students. It’s possible to disagree without being disagreeable. I can’t imagine a graduate seminar in which students wouldn’t challenge any position I might take on an issue. So comments from the book such as “Students are not permitted to ask honest questions about gradualism” (252) are known to be generally untrue by folks in academe but not necessarily by many of the folks who will read this book.

I wish that CPH had produced a more balanced, better written book on this important issue. Unfortunately, it will probably be uncritically quoted in many Bible classes and church discussion groups in a manner that doesn’t bode well for the intellectual vibrancy of the church.

So How Do I View The Relationship Between Biology And Theology?

Biology focuses on how the biosphere works. Theology focuses on how best to live within the biosphere. The Bible provides an inadequate explanation of important elements of biology as we currently understand it, but it’s an excellent resource for learning how to live.

The Bible was of necessity written at a human scale.  It continues to be relevant to many of the contemporary social problems that humans confront because they’re basically similar to those of earlier times. Conversely, our current understanding of the biosphere differs significantly from many Biblical explanations. The initial Bible readers lived in a pre-scientific world, and so the Scriptural explanations of biological phenomena had to match their direct observations and interpretations.

Imagine if Genesis had begun with what we now know: ‘Well, individual organisms are complex collections of these very tiny packets called cells, and inside each cell is a single ladder-shaped twisted molecule that would stretch three feet if unraveled. Each three rungs of the ladder (a codon) codes for a single amino acid. Stretches of codons (genes) express the sequence of amino acids that construct the proteins that are basic building blocks of all plant and animal bodies …’

How much simpler to say: ‘In the beginning God created heaven and earth’—and let it go at that.

Similarly with dietary laws. Imagine the Bible trying to explain trichinosis and related illnesses to folks with a primitive knowledge of food preservation and preparation.

How much simpler to say: ‘Don’t eat pork or shellfish’—and let it go at that.

We humans have large frontal lobes that make us curious and creative and so unwilling to ‘let it go at that.’ This cognitive capability eventually allowed us to go beyond our biological limitations via the technologies we developed—microscopes and telescopes to expand our visual capabilities; wheels, boats and planes to expand our motor capabilities.

Fast forward thousands of years beyond Genesis and such technologies have helped to provide a much better understanding of the complex biological world we inhabit.

When the Bible was written, societies were theocracies and monarchies, and the Bible reflects that in its comments on the appropriate relationship between citizens and rulers. Fast forward several thousand years and most societies are now democracies. Theology has had no problem in adapting Biblical comments on political issues to the concept of a democracy that didn’t exist in Bible times.

Why thus do some theologians have so much trouble adapting theology to contemporary biology?

Beats me.

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