President, McWane Science Center
Welcome to the first installment of McWane Science Center’s blog. We hope our articles stir up discussion, excite interest in science, and make people just a little more hopeful about the future. You should expect new entries in this blog every week or so. The authors will be McWane Science Center staff and occasional guest writers. We welcome responses and will do all we can to respond in a timely fashion.
I’ve chosen evolution as the subject for the first entry for several reasons. The most important is that many of our visitors are genuinely troubled about the apparent conflict between evolution and their religious beliefs. The second is that evolution is a major organizing theory in science. Its predictive value has led to countless breakthroughs in biology and medicine. Finally, Charles Darwin was born 200 years ago yesterday. It is fitting to have his theory lead this effort to generate discussion about science.
Finding Darwin’s God
At McWane, we get questions about faith and science all the time. I am especially interested in these questions because my Christian faith is – or at least should be – the central feature of my life. So too, however, is (or should be) my love for the truth. In a life of integrity, they are two sides of the same coin. So, when I find them in apparent conflict I have to dig in and try to sort it out.
The most obvious point of conflict is evolution. People who believe the book of Genesis is the Word of God – Christians, Jews and Muslims – have a lot at stake when it comes to evolution. We have three choices:
1. Explain away the evidence for evolution in favor of a literal interpretation of Genesis;
2. Throw out Genesis altogether as a false description of reality;
3. Take a less literal view of Genesis in light of the evidence favoring evolution.
My guide in sorting this out has been a remarkable book by a cell biologist from Brown University, Kenneth R. Miller. I found his book Finding Darwin’s God utterly convincing. He too is a committed Christian. Check out his website at http://www.millerandlevine.com/km/index.html. He carefully covers the evidence regarding the age of the earth (four billion years) and the discoveries of transitional fossils (thus combating the case against “macro-evolution). He dismantles the arguments by a professor of bio-Chemistry, Michael Behe, who writes convincingly that Darwinian evolution cannot account for the complexity of the cell. Check out Behe’s book, Darwin’s Black Box (1996, 2006). There’s a great Wikipedia discussion of his book -- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Darwin.
At the end of his book, Miller points out that all scientists, including thoroughgoing atheists like Richard Dawkins, must come to grips with something very fundamental. That is, science can explain the origins of species, but it can’t explain the origin of stuff. Where did it all come from in the first place? For a Christian scientist like Miller, not to mention Francis Collins (who directed the human genome project) and legions of other accomplished scientists, a plausible explanation for the origin of stuff --- and one that simply cannot be ruled out by science --- is…well…God.
“Why are you teaching our children lies?”
One of the most amazing places at McWane Science Center is our area devoted to dinosaurs and sea monsters from the late Cretaceous period. This occurred approximately 82 million years ago. At that time, North America was divided by a great inland sea. The dinosaurs on the eastern side evolved differently from the ones on the western side. Our collection is full of fantastic fossils from the eastern side. All of our fossils were discovered in Alabama. Alabama formed part of the west coast of eastern North America.
This is our Appalachiosaurus Montgomeriensis….The terrible lizard from Montgomery County. (And to think how little has changed in Montgomery in 82 million years!)
Our dinosaurs display does not sit too well with some visitors. One day, a mother angrily asked to meet with me in my office. “Why are you teaching our children lies,” she demanded. I asked her what she meant, and she brought up what our displays say about the earth’s age and what they imply about evolution. I took a great deal of time with her, going over the evidence for a four billion year old earth. I knew that if she agreed with the evidence on that, it might shake at least her dogmatic assertion that we peddle lies. She seemed convinced. I then asked if that shook her faith. She said it did not, and she certainly did not seem upset in any way.
Ever since that encounter, I’ve discussed matters involving evolution and the age of the earth in much the same way. I tend to ask visitors, “Is your faith in God really so fragile that if you were wrong about evolution that you would give up your faith?” Invariably, the answer I have gotten is, “No. I wouldn’t give up my faith over that!”
This answer always both reassures and puzzles me. It reassures me because it seems that people are saying that they believe in God not because of a scientific proof that springs from the book of Genesis. But it puzzles me because the folks I’m talking with are generally extremely hostile to the theory of evolution. If their faith isn’t at stake, why the hostility?
The answer, quite probably, is that most folks haven’t really looked at the evidence. That’s our job at McWane. Those folks, hopefully, care enough about the truth to change. But, there is a darker side in all of us that we should be wary of. Most of us – and certainly deeply committed religious folk – cherish our views of the truth more than the truth itself. We want to win more than we want to learn. And when it comes to God, this is even more the case. We often have more at stake in our view of God than the God who is really there.
McWane Science Center’s Official Positions
Several years ago, the McWane Science Center passed the following resolutions about Science, The Scientific Method and Evolution. They are patterned after statements adopted by the American Academy for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).
“Science is a method of explaining the natural world. Scientists develop theories that explain the natural world, and:
-are internally consistent and compatible with evidence,
-are firmly grounded in and based upon evidence,
-have been tested against a diverse range of phenomena,
-possess broad and demonstrable effectiveness in problem solving, and
-explain a wide variety of phenomena.”
Regarding the Scientific Method:
“The Scientific method uses observation, hypothesis and testing to explain natural phenomena.”
Evolution is a major unifying concept of science. It is based on scientific theory utilizing the scientific method of observation, hypothesis and testing to explain the origins, changes and extinction of organisms.”
You have to follow the logic here. The resolutions go only as far as they need to. In sum, they mean that if evolution meets the definition of science and is based on the scientific method then it is a trustworthy explanation for why biological things are the way they are.
The Knowable Universe
The trustworthiness of evolution as an explanation of biology has led to an explosion in helping scientists solve problems. As James Watson (the same one who helped discover the structure of DNA) points out in a new compilation of Darwin’s works, molecular biologists use evolutionary thinking in nearly everything they do. It is what enables them to isolate genes and study disorders. It is what will help them cure diseases.
Scientists bank on the belief that the universe is knowable. Natalie Angier puts it beautifully in her book, The Canon: “Scientists accept, quite staunchly, that there is a reality capable of being understood in ways that can be shared with and agreed upon by others. …..To say there is an objective reality, and that it exists and can be understood, is one of those plain-truth poems of science that is nearly bottomless in its beauty.” Check out the site devoted to her book at http://www.natalieangier.com/.
This should fill us with hope. We can solve the problems we face – the physical ones anyway -- because the universe around us and within us is abundant with the answers! We should be hopeful about finding cures for illnesses because the body’s secrets are revealing themselves each day to biologists, geneticists and physicians. We should be hopeful about living in a world driven by clean energy because engineers are quickly unlocking power of clean coal, hydrogen, the sun, the wind and the earth’s heat. We should be hopeful about solving the water problems we face because we are learning each day how to conserve and manage available fresh water.
The Limits of Science
Science might be wonderful in the main, but it is limited. It helps us solve problems, but it will not make us kind or brave or wise or good. Science untempered by these things produces horrors with which we are all too familiar. Science added to our native selfishness, tribalism, greed, and fear can, and has, plunged us into deep darkness.
So, people of faith, be of good cheer. The world needs you. Even if evolution explains a lot of things, it does not explain everything. And even if science helps us solve problems, its inability to help us overcome fear and selfishness leaves plenty of room for other -- deeper -- wisdom. We should pursue the truth, wherever it leads, and be fearless about the facts. When we do that, I think we’ll find that T.S. Eliot was right: “the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started, and know the place for the first time.” Yes, for my part, I expect Him to be there – God .
But, I could be wrong! And that will be o.k. too.
Tim Ritchie is the president and CEO of McWane Science Center. He has served in that position since June, 2004. During his time at McWane, general attendance has grown from 250,000 visitors per year to 350,000, and memberships have grown from 3400 member families to 8000. Earned revenue has grown from 55% to 70% of operating revenue. The endowment has grown from a few thousand dollars to $3.5 million (with $2.0 million additionally pledged). Prior to working at McWane, Tim served for six years as the president of Louisville Diversified Services, a non-profit organization in Louisville, Kentucky that runs businesses to provide jobs for adults with mental retardation. Tim lived in Birmingham from 1988 until 1997. He practiced law in the firm now known as Wallace, Jordan, Ratliff and Brandt. He left his firm to serve as the program developer for an inner-city ministry, The Center for Urban Missions. He then worked for the James Rushton Foundation, helping it buy a block in inner-city Birmingham and develop it as a community garden. It is now the principal site of Jones Valley Farm. Tim’s other work experiences have included clerking for the Chief Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court, clerking in a poverty law clinic in Mendenhall, Mississippi, and representing defendants on North Carolina’s death row. Tim also spent a year in Southeastern Kentucky selling equipment for handling coal, crushed rock, corn and the like. Tim received his B.A. from Davidson College, his J.D. from Duke Law School, and his M.P.A. from Harvard University. He has completed eight marathons and will run in the 2009 Boston Marathon (having finally qualified!). One of Tim’s happiest moments was giving the commencement address for Duke Law School (having been chosen to do so by his class). He is a member of Leadership Alabama (class of 2008), Leadership Birmingham (class of 1998), the Birmingham Downtown Rotary Club, and Altadena Valley Presbyterian Church. He plays the trumpet and leads a brass quintet where he is the only old guy among the five (everyone else is in college or high school). His wife Christine is the director of the Center for Palliative Care at U.A.B. They have two children, Ivy (16) and Ramsay (13).