For the most part, my schooling and research has only required a modest familiarity with evolutionary processes and the fossil record. In trying to publish my most recent research, however, I had to wrestle with questions about how the ecology of Earth’s oceans would respond to a world of rising oxygen, falling carbon dioxide, an increase in major nutrient (phosphate/nitrate) availability, and a decrease in redox-sensitive nutrients (e.g. iron). In other words, how did organisms evolve to survive this dramatically changing world, and what kind of chemical (e.g. isotopic) record would they leave?
I apologize for thinking out loud here in jargon-ridden phrases, but I hope you can appreciate how the major sciences intertwine, and why I am pursuing a better understanding of evolutionary theory. Yes, I have taken basic biology courses and contributed to paleontological research, but these produced more questions than they answered.
At the same time, I am aware of the controversy surrounding evolutionary theory in the mind of the general public, and particularly within the church. Personally, I do not have any objections to accepting biological evolution (on scientific or theological grounds), but I understand why many are skeptical of evolution in general, and why others are passionately opposed to accepting any part of it (let alone have it taught to their children!). Nonetheless, I find the emotionally driven, highly polarized ‘non-discussion’ that takes place between evolutionary biologists and their critics to be unfortunate at best, and childish at worst. Let me give you an example.
When I began my search, I purchased two best-sellers: The Greatest Show on Earth by Richard Dawkins, and Why Evolution is True by Jerry Coyne. Yes, some might call this ‘pop-science’ writing, and an unusual place for a graduate student to seek science lessons. But I simply wanted to know from the start: “What do the most outspoken proponents of evolutionary theory believe is the best evidence?”
In short, I enjoyed reading both books. Their arguments transitioned smoothly from one to the next in logical fashion. When I finished, I thought: “Yeah, that sounds good. This is a well established theory.” But I also felt disappointed. I had learned a majority of these arguments already, either years ago in science class or—strangely enough—while browsing through creationist literature! At very few points in each book did I come away with “Aha!” moments in response to novel explanations or examples of the evidence. That being said, Dawkins’ explanation of the ‘arms race’ of evolutionary ecology (the ‘tall forests’ example), sexual selection, and DNA’s role in embryology/development (the ‘origami’ analogy) were superb—I recommend them to any enquiring student of biology.
Unfortunately, these rather enlightening chapters were prefaced by numerous, rhetorical ‘cheap shots’ at creationists and an error-ridden explanation of isotopes and radiometric dating. Initially, his major defense against creationism was to call it a product of dogmatism, ignorance, and stupidity. But when Dawkins’ touched on subjects that fell under my own expertise—namely, isotope geochemistry—I found that his information was erroneously translated from secondhand sources. In other words, he was arrogantly promoting false information about a subject in which he had never conducted research, because he didn’t know enough to correct the errors. Not surprisingly, Dawkins can’t seem to figure out why the percentage of people that reject evolution continues to grow.
Don’t stop now!
Despite my criticism of Dawkins’ approach (and, vicariously, many of his colleagues) to promoting evolutionary theory, my words should not be taken as an ad hominem attack on his conclusions. The evidence for common descent and biological evolution is considerable—overwhelming in some areas—and must be dealt with by any competing theory (of which there are none, currently). But if anyone is interested in convincing the public of this fact (or the church, for that matter), one must learn to address people with respect, while anticipating objections and presenting evidence against those objections. No skeptic of evolution will be convinced by the evidence from comparative anatomy and genomics, for example, if they believe that the challenge of ‘irreducible complexity’ is insurmountable. No skeptic of human evolution (common descent with the great apes) will be convinced by physical and genetic similarities if they believe ‘common design’ provides a viable, alternative explanation. Even if Dawkins is correct about evolution, he is preaching to the choir while alienating a majority of his audience.
But there is hope…
Recently, I came across the YouTube series entitled “Can an Evangelical Christian Accept Evolution?” by Dennis Venema—a biologist/geneticist at Trinity Western University and Senior Fellow of the Biologos Foundation. After reading his recent, autobiographical article at Biologos, I decided follow up on his work. I am posting the first video below in hopes that you will watch the full series (12 videos). Personally, I have never seen a better explanation of the genetic evidence for evolution. He cites original studies and presents the original data (so you can follow up on your own), while articulating each argument in an easily understandable manner. Best of all, he is respectful to the audience, their questions, and common objections to the evidence. Please, enjoy.*
*For those of you that prefer a written explanation, Dr. Venema’s presentation above is taken from a 2010 ASA article (PDF found here).