Confessions of an Evolutionary Biologist

Confessions of an Evolutionary Biologist

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I love evolutionary biology and I love Jesus. How does one make such a statement without being inconsistent? It helps if one is first of all in love with good ideas rather than blindly accepting of beliefs. Secondly, it helps if one has lived in the world of science, the world of religion, and the world of philosophy. Here is one person’s journey in those worlds.

Growing up in New Mexico on a farm in the cottonwood bosque of the Rio Grande valley provides nearly all the ingredients for a kid to become a naturalist. Most of my childhood was spent out of doors with hard work and hard play. Church, for us, was more of community and social fabric than anything else. Every adult in the congregation was a parent and every child was a brother or sister. In fact, I never knew any of the adult’s first names, they were all “Brother” this or “Sister” that. We went to church to sing and pray and suffer through a boring sermon from some invited preacher in anticipation of the fellowship and sharing of food at a potluck and playing touch football after church.

My only time in front of a television was the few hours on Saturday mornings watching the cartoons. The rest of the time I was roaming alone miles from home with one of my dogs along the Rio Grande, hunting with my pellet rifle and cooking over a cottonwood fire, or wading in the black mud of swampy river bottoms and catching crawdads, or just laying down on the bank of an acequia (ditch) after eating wild asparagus and watching the clouds take shape into thunder heads and the lighting strikes on the nearby mountaintops. I had a lot of time to think listening to the lazy buzz of bees around spicy purple sage and sweet yellow chamisa of the high mountain deserts, watching horned lizards lapping up red ants, and hearing prairie dogs bark warnings, smelling the fresh smell of rain on alkali soil and the earthy pungency of a freshly-plowed alfalfa field, and when I was in town, the rich aroma of chili and frijoles coming from my grandmother’s kitchen—a fragrance so thick it made the air seem as if you could cut and eat it.

I learned to trust those senses of smell, and sight, and hearing, and tasting and not to let my imaginings or emotions take hold of me. Staying out alone at night taught me that a lot of what you imagine is out there is just a result of allowing your mind to operate irrationally and emotionally. Monsters could easily be dismissed with a check of your flashlight or even a shot with your pellet gun. Loss of a pet and loved ones at an early age taught me that life is not fair, or at least that it seems indifferent, and that the best way to cope is to have a positive attitude regardless of circumstances: to be content in all things. I realized that emotions could be controlled and that logic and reason could be relied upon to make wild imaginings go away.

Having parents who were bipolar or displayed addictive behaviors reinforced my convictions learned in the natural world that emotional outbursts were untrustworthy and that one’s senses and the cognitive mechanisms of logic and rationality were far better able to provide contentment … even if they did not provide the thrilling rush of fleeting elation or the crushing blow of despair. Retreating into logic and reason was a way to make sense of the world. I had banished my demons but, in the process, I realized that I no longer had much need for angels or miracles.

But I also came to the realization that logic and rationality, those things that I’d come to trust, were themselves not detectable. Even the very thinking itself and ideas that it generated were not really detectable but only symbolized as words. And yet these undetectable ideas somehow caused my mind and others to come to those  (AHA—this is IT) insights. Those ideas somehow provided me some degree of contentment and excitement and those feelings of insight themselves were emotions which I could not detect with my five senses.

I loved ideas. I loved the life of the mind. But it was the idea of God who became a man and died in our place to show us the right way to live—in sacrifice and service to others—that was very intriguing to me. The idea of simply accepting that this person named Jesus is the son of God, an idea which guaranteed an eternity of existence by accepting him through baptism—that was especially appealing. I knew of no other religion that offered so much and demanded so little—just the continual trying to be like Jesus not the actual becoming was sufficient for grace to accrue. Even my acceptance of Christianity was not based in untrustworthy emotion but on logic and reasoning which I could trust. My “conversion experience” was not a result of some cum-by-yah-warm-and-fuzzy-church-camp experience. Instead, I had an uncle who hit me with Pascal’s wager to tip the balance in favor of an acceptance of faith.

College was a kid-in-the-candy-store experience for me of new ideas. My biggest problem was deciding what field I should pursue since they were all interesting to me. I started out wanting to be a veterinarian but quickly realized that being a physician had to be easier since your patients could talk to you and tell you what was wrong. But after visiting the medical schools, I quickly came to the conclusion that being around the sick and dying was unpleasant. At the time, most of the major scientific discoveries being made related to use of microorganisms. Discovery of DNA, biochemical processes, genetics were all done using microbes as models. One of my undergraduate professors saw in me something of which I will never know and offered me a job for the summer: sampling and identifying the microbes that grew in five northern New Mexico lakes. A perfect combination: being outdoors in some of the wildest and prettiest natural environments, doing science, and getting paid. I camped, sampled, and studied all summer. I finished my degree in biology making Phi Beta Kappa in my senior year because I also loved studying all the liberal arts not just science. I went on to receive the masters and Ph.D. still studying microbes in their natural habitat (thermophiles in hot springs) in some of the most pristine areas of the New Mexico mountains.

As a biologist, one should love nature and pick areas that are beautiful to study. He should also be skeptical of explanations that rely on something other than the ordinary, especially when it comes to morals and ethics in humans. A good quote that captures the biologist’s way of thinking is from Steinbeck and Ricketts, Sea of Cortez:

“We sat on a crate of oranges and thought what good men most biologists are, the tenors of the scientific world-temperamental, moody, lecherous, loud-laughing, and healthy. … The true biologist deals with life, with teeming boisterous life, and learns something from it, learns that the first rule of life is living. … He must, so know the starfish and the student biologist who sits at the feet of living things, proliferate in all directions. Having certain tendencies, he must move along their lines to the limit of their potentialities. … Your true biologist will sing you a song as loud and off-key as will a blacksmith, for he knows that morals are too often diagnostic of prostatitis and stomach ulcers. Sometimes he may proliferate a little too much in all directions, but he is as easy to kill as any other organism, and meanwhile he is very good company, and at least he does not confuse a low hormone productivity with moral ethics.”

Once out of graduate school, and with my entire dissertation published in a series of five articles, I went to work in corporate life in the field of “Cosmetic Microbiology” establishing the field with several articles, an entry into the Encyclopedia of Microbiology on cosmetic microbiology and a practical handbook on the topic. But corporate life was not all I had hoped. I was cooped up inside an office, and the things asked of me were not intellectually stimulating. Seven years of corporate backstabbing and doing mindless work in an office was enough. Besides, I had always wanted to teach.

I had continued being active in my church and decided that one of my fellowship’s premier universities might be the place. I ended up accepting a position at Abilene Christian University. This move enabled me to return to learning new ideas by studying philosophy of science and the intersection of faith and learning. So, I am one of those people who has played in several domains all his life: science, theology, and philosophy. These days, there is considerable effort to get these three domains to interact with each other. If they are avenues for pursuing truth, according to their adherents, they should be interacting and perhaps with synergy be able to reach Truth. Getting these three groups to talk to each other is significant and brought on by several efforts including the Templeton Foundation.

It was not always that way.  At an international meeting of microbial ecologists in Brazil twelve years ago, I could not help getting into a conversation with two of the seminar participants trying to understand what a remnant environment was. I had spent fifteen years studying a microbe in a sulfur spring that would scald you in seconds. This, I explained, is a remnant environment. It is left behind from the original hot and reducing Earth like a scrap of cloth from the original bolt. “You’re from Abilene Christian University?” asked the now enlightened participant. “That’s a remnant environment as well, isn’t it?” I was stunned by the biting comment. I could only stammer, “I guess it depends on your perspective.” On the flip side, I am also greeted with some disdain from fellow churchgoers who label me a functional atheist because I am not a Genesis literalist and I think that evolution is a good idea for explaining the origin of species. I love science and I love Jesus. How do I exist in such divergent domains where my fellows criticize me for being in each?

First, I realize that science is like a good card game. The game is called methodological naturalism. It is not so much about The-Way-to-Ultimate-Truth-About-the-Universe as it is a great method (a highly successful one) to explain how and why things happen without using supernatural explanations. At the card game of science, you can only play naturalistic explanation cards to describe why and how phenomena occur. Supernatural cards like the “God-did-it” card are trumps. No one trumps because the game ends when you do. We scientists like to play only naturalistic explanation cards because you keep the game going that way. Even a “Gaia-Earth-Mother-did-it” card would stop the game. It’s OK to have supernatural chit-chat across the table—well, at least, with some players—but you never play it as an explanation card. The downside is those odd players who are so invested in the game of methodological naturalism that they turn it into a life’s philosophy: metaphysical naturalism. You know the type: man is only an animal, the brain is just another organ sending electrical and chemical signals just like the liver detoxifies chemicals. They allow metaphysical value statements to slip in under the guise of scientific practice. They prevent supernatural talk of any kind even when away from the gaming table.

Second, I explain to my fellow church goers that God works in some rather unexplainable ways. But if God is the perfect law giver you’d expect God to abide by those same perfect natural laws … at least most of the time. I also try to explain to them how complex the bible stories really are and that superficial meanings based in literalism are not nearly as deep as what the stories are trying to convey about the human experience. Finally, I explain that when we claim we know how God created (by being an engineer, designer or machinist) we end up creating a god in our image and we limit his intelligence to our own. I never use natural theology as a claim that science can prove God (I’m not a fan of “dandy designs”). God needs to remain ineffable, mysterious and numinous for me.

The key in my life is to be very committed to ideas, including ideas about evolution and God; to be committed to proper scriptural exegesis (“literalist” in an Augustinian way); to be a free thinker and non-creedal where each person can exegete scripture using the best theology possible and “work out his own salvation in fear and trembling before the Lord.” It is easy for me to be committed to ideas first rather than feelings. I love the idea of God sustaining and upholding the universe and acting via God’s perfect laws; I love the idea that that same God become incarnate, lived, suffered and died and was resurrected; I love the idea that grace is all free and we get rewarded just for trying … not succeeding.

Effectively, I am almost a skeptic about skepticism except that it would lead to what the philosophers call an infinite regress where nothing is truth. But I go ahead and play the game as if the rules really are true. Whether that game is science or religion or even philosophy, they all give good ideas (mini-truths) about the universe. I’m still searching for knowledge and still reading, writing and reflecting on ideas. And still coming to the realization that we can never get IT all figured out. The big questions intrigue me now. How to get God’s word—which in my mind is composed not only of revelation in scripture, but also in His created nature, the traditions of the church, and one’s own personal experiences—how to get all four of these sources to harmonize and be consistent is the work I like to pursue. I really do not think anyone can achieve that goal in a single lifetime. Ultimately, like St. Paul, we have to wait to find out Truth since “now we see through a glass darkly, then we shall see face to face.”

Unlike many, I am comfortable not knowing. And so I can identify with Voltaire’s statement several centuries ago: “It is truly extravagant to define God, angels and minds, and to know precisely why God defined the world, when we do even know why we move our arms at will. Doubt is not a very agreeable state, but certainly is a ridiculous one.” However, at the same time, I am intrigued with St. Anselm’s phrase fides querens intellectum. Throughout my life, two metaphors seem to guide my thinking: the Cathedral of Nature where I feel closest to God when I am in communion with his creation and the Eternal Library of God which is what I hope heaven is like with all the books ever written in their original language and I have an eternity to study them. Throw in a pine tree on the top of a mountain with a waterfall cascading nearby and birds and animals and plenty of life surrounding me as a storm develops in the distance and I can be content. In the meantime, I have hope and an apparent purpose to keep me going.